The difference between greatness and mediocrity is often measured by our perception of error.” NELSON BOSWELL

On August 6, 1999, a Major League Baseball player steps up to bat in Montreal and is retired, marking the 5,113th time in his career. That’s countless at-bats without a hit! If a player were to record all those outs one after the other, at a rate of four at-bats per game, he would play for eight seasons (1278 consecutive games) without ever reaching first base!

Did this player succumb to discouragement that night? No. Did he think he had failed himself or his team? No. You see, at the beginning of that same game, in his first at-bat, this player accomplished a feat that only 21 other players could claim in baseball history. He had just hit his 3,000th career hit. This player’s name was Tony Gwynn, of the San Diego Padres.

On that day, Tony swung at the plate four out of his five at-bats. That wasn’t the norm for him. Usually, he failed two out of three times. Such results might seem discouraging, but if you know baseball, you’ll recognize that consistently getting a hit in one out of three attempts made him one of the greatest hitters of his generation. And Tony admits that it took many strikeouts to achieve such performance.

I’ve been a fan of Tony Gwynn for over 10 years. When I lived in San Diego, I had season tickets to Padres games. I saw him play his first game with the team. And I followed his career closely. As the fateful moment approached when he would hit his 3,000th hit, I was determined to witness this feat.

On the day we expected him to accomplish this milestone, I had just finished a leadership seminar in Chicago and had to give a lecture in Philadelphia the next day. I pulled some strings to change my flight itinerary. And then I called my stepson, Steve, who was supposed to join me for this conference, and invited him to come along. We both hoped to find a flight to Montreal to attend the game.

I knew we’d be cutting it close, but I was hopeful. When the plane landed, everything seemed perfect. But after the passengers disembarked, Steve was held up at customs. As the minutes passed, it became increasingly clear that we would miss Tony’s first at-bat. And of course, when we arrived at the stadium, he had already hit his 3,000th hit.


Did we give up when we realized we would likely miss this historic moment with Tony? No. When we got to the stadium and realized it was too late, did we turn back and go home? No. Did I see myself as a loser when I wanted to buy a program and found out the vendors had already sold out? No.

People tend to judge isolated episodes in their lives too quickly and label them as failures. They should instead consider everything in a broader perspective.

You see, we were just happy to be part of the celebration. And like Tony, who perseveres until he gets a hit, we were rewarded. Later in the game, when Tony hit a foul ball that got lost in the crowd, I caught it. A few weeks later, Tony signed it, and now I have a memento from the game where he hit his 3,000th hit.

People tend to judge isolated episodes in their lives too quickly and label them as failures. They should instead consider everything in a broader perspective. A player like Tony Gwynn doesn’t feel like a failure when he’s retired from the game. It fits into the overall context of the match for him. This perspective breeds perseverance. That perseverance leads to longevity. And that longevity provides opportunities for success.


Changing your perception of failure will help you persevere and eventually achieve your dreams. So, how should you judge failure? Let’s start by examining 7 things that failure is not:

  1. People think failure can be avoided – That’s false.

Everyone fails, makes mistakes, and errs. You know the saying attributed to Alexander Pope from 250 years ago: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” And he was just paraphrasing another saying from the time of the Romans, 2,000 years ago. “Today, nothing has changed: humans inevitably make mistakes.”

You’ve probably heard of Murphy’s Law and the Peter Principle. Recently, I came across a text titled “Rules for Being Human.” I believe this list describes us well:

Rule number 1: You will learn lessons.

Rule number 2: There are no mistakes, only lessons.

Rule number 3: A lesson will be repeated until it is learned.

Rule number 4: If you don’t learn easy lessons, they will become harder. (Pain is a tactic the universe uses to get your attention).

Rule number 5: You will know you have learned a lesson when your actions change. You see, author Norman Cousins was right when he said,

“The essence of man is imperfection.” Therefore, everyone can make mistakes.

  1. People think failure is an event – That’s false.

When I was younger, I believed failure happened in an instant. Taking a test is the best example that comes to mind. An F equals failure. But I came to understand that failure is a process. If you fail a test, it doesn’t mean you failed in a single event. The F you received shows you neglected the process leading up to that test.

In 1997, I wrote a book called The Success Journey. It provides an overview of what success means. I define it as:

Knowing your purpose in life,

Growing to reach your potential,

Planting seeds to help others.

In this book, I argue that success is not a destination; it’s not a place you arrive at one day. Success is the journey you undertake. And it depends on what you do day after day. In other words, success is a process.

The same goes for failure; it’s not a place you arrive at one day. Just as success is not an event, failure is not an event. It’s how you manage your life day after day. No one can admit defeat before their last breath. The process is ongoing until the ultimate moment, and the jury has not yet entered the scene.

  1. People think failure is objective – That’s false.

When you make a mistake (miscalculations, missed deadlines, a significant transaction gone wrong, wrong choices concerning your children, or any other blunder), what determines it as a failure? Do you dwell on the extent of the problem that mistake caused or the financial losses it incurred for you and your business? Do you measure it against your boss’s reprimands or your peers’ criticisms? No.

Only you can truly qualify your actions as failures.”

Failure is not measured that way. Only you can truly qualify your actions as failures. It’s subjective. It’s your way of perceiving your mistakes and reacting to them that determines if your actions are failures.

Did you know that entrepreneurs rarely achieve success with their first business venture? Or the second? Or the third? According to Lisa Amos, a business professor at Tulane University, entrepreneurs average 3.8 failures before succeeding in business. They don’t get discouraged by problems or mistakes. Why? Because they don’t see obstacles as failures. They consider three steps forward and two steps back still equal to one step forward. Therefore, they rise above average and join the ranks of winners.

  1. People think failure is an enemy – That’s false.

Most people flee from failure like the plague. They fear it. But there is no success without adversity. Nick Pitino, a coach in the National Basketball Association, defines it even more: “Failure is good,” he says. “It’s fertilizer. Everything I’ve learned about my profession, I’ve learned by making mistakes.

People who see an enemy in failure are prisoners in the eyes of those who conquer it. Herbert V. Brocknow says, “He who never makes mistakes receives his instructions from he who does.” Look at any great winner, and you’ll find someone who doesn’t see error as an enemy. And that applies to everything we undertake. Musicologist Eloise Ristad points out that

when we give ourselves permission to fail, we at the same time give ourselves permission to excel.


This text is an excerpt from the book “Overcoming Adversity: How to Use Your Mistakes as a Springboard to Success” written by John C. Maxwell.

We invite you to read the following article “Overcoming Adversity is a Matter of Self-Esteem.

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