You can’t learn to be a big winner without losing first. We would all love to achieve success on the first go, but the reality is failure often lays the requisite groundwork for success. As I discussed in my earlier post “Fail to Succeed,” failing hardens our resolve, gives us experience, and lights the way to achieving our goal.
In his almost manic Oscar acceptance speech for winning Best Picture for “Argo,” Ben Affleck illustrated this mainstay mantra in Silicon Valley. After a string of bad films, the reinvented and rebooted Affleck said, voice trembling with emotion: “It doesn't matter how you get knocked down in life; that's going to happen. All that matters is you've got to get up."
This maxim is best exemplified in politics. There’s no clearer referendum on success and failure than an election by popular vote. Throughout history, political losers have rose to become successful leaders. In fact, every elected U.S. President since Kennedy has lost a major election on their way to the top:
- Lyndon Johnson – Lost his first battle for the U.S. Senate in 1941
- Richard Nixon – Lost his first race for the Presidency against Kennedy in 1960
- Jimmy Carter – Ran for governor of Georgia in 1966 and lost
- Ronald Reagan – Failed to win the Republican Presidential nomination in 1976 when he took on a sitting President Ford
- George H. W. Bush – Lost his race for Congress in 1964 and then lost his Senate seat in 1970
- George W. Bush – Failed in his bid for congress in 1978
- Barak Obama – Took on a popular sitting congressman, Bobby Rush, in 2000 and got trounced in the Democratic primary
Bill Clinton lost his first reelection bid for Arkansas governor. That loss was devastating for him. But he quickly learned from his failure and adopted a new message, which put him back in the governor’s mansion two years later. He famously said that he “learned from defeat that you can't lead without listening.” Recognizing
the value of failure allowed him to take a big risk in 1992 and run against a very
popular president. His main Democrat rivals (Mario Cuomo and Dick Gephardt)
didn’t jump into the race because they were too afraid of losing. Without
Clinton’s pivotal failure earlier in his career, the 1990s could have been a
very different decade.
Beyond gaining experience, running a failed campaign can build up essential
and recognition for future elections. John McCain lost his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2000, but he gained the national recognition to win the nomination in 2008. Mitt Romney followed the same blueprint, losing to McCain that year but winning the nomination in 2012. Romney invested a lot of time in building a strong ground game during his first run, cultivating support in key states and setting up offices around the country. When he ran the second time, he was able to re-enlist those same resources. Building upon an already strong foundation, he handily won the nomination.
While I can’t predict who our next president will be, I can predict that he or she will have lost a significant election in the past. Losing is at the heart of winning big.