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Is Failure Shameful?

Posted on: 03 July '09

Even before Dhoni and team lost their first match in the T20 World Cup, some in our media sniffed it in the air, and reported trouble every day. So when they actually lost three matches, the media had a good story to tell!

I have realized that it makes best sense to predict an Indian defeat. If the team wins, you are happy, and celebrate; and if it does lose, you become an expert! And so celebrate!

But I write this time to share a different thought – on what is “shame”. A day after India’s defeats on the cricket field, I switch on a news channel, and I see the heading “India Shamed”. I couldn’t fathom this. Yes, Dhoni and team have lost a few matches and made an unexpected exit when we expected them to win the Cup. Now that’s disappointing, I agree. If you are a diehard fan, you could even say it is disgusting! But shameful?

Is failure shameful?

If we need to go beyond the ordinary, if we have to succeed in a big way, I believe we need to get comfortable with failure. We cannot make quantum jumps if we are unwilling to aspire for big things, and whenever we do it, we put ourselves at risk. Failing is uncomfortable, and disappointing, but when we learn from failures, we lay the foundations of success. It is attributed to Edison that he succeeded at the light bulb only after 700 failed attempts, and he saw these not as failures but as learning 700 ways in which a light bulb will not work.

Many years back, my younger sister told me, “I have always come first or second in whatever I have attempted.” I knew she was extremely talented and was proud of her, but I told her, “This means you have not tried many things – you have not explored the limits of what is possible.”

So what is shameful?

Cheating or lying one’s way to success is shameful. Insensitivity to others while pursuing our agenda is shameful. Depriving others of their lives or livelihood while we build our own careers is shameful. Yes, failures are also shameful when we refuse to learn from them and make the same mistakes repeatedly. Failing and refusing to take responsibility is also shameful.

But failing, per se, cannot be shameful, specially when we take responsibility, learn from our setbacks, and move on.

Mindtree Blog Archives

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  • Dear Kalyan,
    Thank you for an interesting post.
    The Late Prof Randy Pausch in his book “The Last Lecture” talks about the “First Penguin”. Here is an extract:
    In a virtual-reality course, which Randy taught he encouraged students to just try and not worry about failure. At the end of the semester, he presented a stuffed penguin-“The First Penguin Award”-to the team that took the biggest gamble while not meeting its goals. The award came from the idea that when penguins jump in water that might have predators. But well, one of them’s got to be the first penguin. In essence, it was a prize for “glorious failure.”Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted. And it can be the most valuable thing you have to offer.
    There is another angle to failure. At times, what may look like failure to others may not be failure. A person can act in a particular way because of certain values or ideals he upholds, even if this may mean a failure in terms of say, not attaining a particular revenue target.

  • Kalyan K. Banerjee

    there’s always something to learn from your posts.

    You have raised a new angle to failure, too. What looks like failure to others may really be my success.

    In fact, “success” today is attributed to those who have received the most from the system. So, those with a good car, good house, or taking fancy vacations are seen as successful. Those who “give” more than they receive are seen as not successful.


  • Geetha

    Dear Mr. Banerjee,

    Thank you for this great post.

    Being an ardent cricket fan and especially after having been a Calcuttan for nearly a quarter-century, I can fully understand the volatile emotions that we, as a nation, go through when our sports teams win or lose. There is no via media for us – we know only two things – a ticker-tape parade or a garland of chappals!

    As you have so rightly mentioned: “Failing is uncomfortable, and disappointing, but when we learn from failures, we lay the foundations of success.” Mr.Jack Canfield refers to this kind of instructive failure as “failing forward” and I quite like that term!

    Sometimes, a failure can actually even be a blessing in disguise? We just need to look for the lemonade in the lemons? Like Napoleon Hill says: “Every negative event contains within it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” And as noted sports columnist, Nirmal Shekar has said very recently while talking about Sania Mirza:

    “In sport, as in life, sometimes it is necessary to plumb the depths to get a clear view of the way up.”

    And we would not have had the success stories of so many people if they had thought that failure was shameful. Here are some statistics please:

    “Success Is Getting Up More Than You Fall Down ~ Harvey Mackay in ‘Pushing The Envelope All The Way To The Top’

    I’m constantly asked what I think is the secret of success. Well, it’s a lot of things but at the top of my list are two beliefs: (a) you need to be a hungry fighter, and (b) a hungry fighter never quits. I’ve learned over the years that success is largely hanging on after others have let go.

    When you study the truly successful people, you’ll see that they have made plenty of mistakes, but when they were knocked down, they kept getting up and up and up. Like the Energizer Bunny keeps going and going and going.

    Abraham Lincoln failed in business, lost numerous elections and his sweetheart, and had a nervous breakdown. But he never quit. He kept on trying and became, according to many, our greatest president.

    Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book was rejected by 23 publishers.
    Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
    Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he finally succeeded.
    Franklin D. Roosevelt was struck down by polio but he never quit.
    Helen Keller, totally deaf and blind, graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College, and went on to become a famous author and lecturer.
    Adam Clark labored 40 years writing his commentary on the Holy Scriptures.
    The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took Edward Gibbon 26 painstaking years to complete.
    Ernest Hemingway is said to have revised The Old Man and the Sea manuscript 80 times before submitting it for publication.
    It took Noah Webster 36 years to compile Webster’s Dictionary.
    The University of Bern rejected Albert Einstein’s Ph.D. dissertation, saying it was irrelevant and fanciful.
    Johnny Unitas was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he kept his dream alive by working construction and playing amateur football while staying in contact with every NFL team. The Baltimore Colts finally responded and he became one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
    Richard Hooker worked seven years on the humorous war novel, M*A*S*H, only to have it rejected by 21 publishers.
    Charles Goodyear spent every last dollar over five years filled with experiments to try and develop a rubber life preserver before he succeeded.

    Sir Winston Churchill, himself a person who never quit in a lifetime of defeats and setbacks, delivered the shortest and most eloquent commencement address ever given. Despite taking three years to get through eighth grade because of his trouble learning English grammar, Churchill was asked to address the graduates of Oxford University. As he approached the podium with his trademark cigar, cane, and top hat, he shouted, ‘Never give up!’ Several seconds passed before he rose to his toes and repeated, ‘Never, never give up.’ Then he sat down.”

    And last, but not the least, if only we could teach our children that failing in the Board exams is not “shameful”, we could avoid the tragic loss of so many, many tender and promising lives!

    Thank you once again.

    Warm regards,


  • Geetha

    Dear Mr.Banerjee,

    What you have said is so true:

    ‘In fact, “success” today is attributed to those who have received the most from the system. So, those with a good car, good house, or taking fancy vacations are seen as successful. Those who “give” more than they receive are seen as not successful.’

    I read the following in the article ‘Life Sutra’ by AVIS in yesterday’s edition of The New Indian Express and it touched a chord:

    “Do we even realise that we have stopped relating to fellow beings as humans? That power, position, perks and social status come ahead of our basic need to respect another life and appreciate another opinion?

    Just as we all breathe to stay alive, we have also to contribute and give selflessly to experience bliss and unadulterated joy. We can learn a lesson or two from Mother Nature here. Have you ever seen a tree demanding anything in return for what it gives us; the oxygen we breathe, the shade we rest in, the fruits that nourish us and the paper that this article is printed on? How often do you find another human who is as selfless? The truth is, nature gives and forgives. Man gets and forgets!

    And when we start feeling human and start living a life of purpose, intelligently again, we find the milestones, that were eluding us so far, on that path. Those are success, peace and joy.”

    And also, there are people who lack the fire in the belly, but are contented with their lot in life. Are they “failures?”

    Thanks and regards,



    But this day succces is attributed the materialistic factor but not one’s soul feelings(Like happiness etc.). One is forced not to accept failures which have already happend thinking the society may deprive him/her.

  • Aruna.AP

    Hello Mr.Kalyan,
    I had a chance to receive the mindspeak newsletter, through which I was able to read your article.I do agree on your thought -Failure is not shameful.My failure is somebody’s success.And we have always have the habit of saying Yes or No, never thinking about the third dimension.See the fuss over transgenders, gays/lesbians.When there is in nature the existence of two extremes, there must be some thing in between. If we learn to see these in-betweens too, then the reaction to either success or failure will be same and nothing is unshameful.

  • Shashi

    Dear Kalyan,
    Short and Sweet article. I really admire the way you bring in different perceptions to any concept. I agree with you in that “Yes, failures are also shameful when we refuse to learn from them and make the same mistakes repeatedly, also refusing to take responsibility for a failure”.

  • Abhay Kumar Singh

    Shame is defensive outlook of will. You are never ashamed for something you never wanted. When your situation gets the better of you, you feel ashamed in your heart and lose in your mind. Being aware of this fact, pulls your mind & heart out of this state and brings it back on track. I call this synchronization of mind with its surroundings or situation. Even OS brings a memory page to main memory after hitting page faults. Its a normal process and its like this by design. We tend to make it big in our hearts and get bogged down. Its a design feature of a human software!!


  • Rachna

    Hi Kalyan,
    That’s a truly thought-provoking write-up. Mistakes are bound to happen as we venture into the unknown, willing to explore newer avenues. At the same time it is essential that we learn from mistakes we have made along the way and move on without repeating the lessons.
    Thanks and Regards,

  • Sachin

    Its always a learning experience for me , I have seen lot of failure in my life . Wasted lot of days , doing nothing .. But as Kalyan said its shameful if you are not learning from failures .For me accepting that I have failed was hard ,Learning only starts once you accept the failure .. and I think this is the toughest nut to crack