Are you a learner or non-learner? : Failure is, but success | Sunday Observer

Are you a learner or non-learner? : Failure is, but success

 How often do we plan one thing and then it turns out to be another! The American businessman, Timothy Dexter, who lived in the 18th century, sent a huge cargo of warming pans to the West Indies. When the items failed to sell, he didn’t worry about it, but convinced the natives that the product was for cooking in a hot climate because of the long handles. The idea was accepted and the end result was, Dexter made his fortune out of the sales.

The experience has become proverbial: We aim at the goose and hit the gander.

The same thing happens with cheerful frequency in daily life. You lose a job because you messed up the interview. With that experience in mind, you keep on applying, and finally, get your dream job. You order a book and get the wrong book but continue reading and it opens a whole new vista you never dreamed of.

The moral of the story is straightforward. Any failure is a classic learning experience, and must be viewed in that spirit. There are untold blessings hidden in every mistake.


British tea dealer Thomas Sullivan was sending samples to potential customers, and, to cut costs, he put a few pinches of loose leaves in several small silk pouches. The confused clients received the samples and, unsure of the instructions, dunked them into hot water, and thus, the tea bag was born.

The modern pacemaker was born from the error of its developer who inadvertently put the wrong sized resistor into his nascent heart rhythm device. It produced the distinctive lub-dub sound of the human heart beat. His discovery transformed pacemakers and changed millions of lives worldwide.

Brothers, John and Keith Kellogg, accidentally allowed a batch of cooked wheat to go stale, but processed it nonetheless. The result was a thin flake which the pair then baked and sold as the now omnipresent breakfast cereal.

Alexander Fleming left a number of laboratory dishes unwashed and returned to find that many of them had been contaminated and grown bacteria colonies. On one however, he noted that a patch of mould had prevented the growth of bacteria which prompted him to explore the substance’s bacteria-killing properties. Thus, the world’s first antibiotic substance, benzyl penicillin came into being.

We can find hundreds of other examples.


The other day I was watching a short video of Oprah Winfrey’s speech to a graduating class of Harvard University. To a group almost certainly assured of great success in life, Oprah stressed the need to understand the message of failure.

“If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, the law of averages predicts that you will at some point fall. And, when you do, I want you to remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

Oprah’s words resonated within me with special power. As a senior citizen in the early seventies, I’ve come to grasp this as a fundamental truth in the lives of many I’ve worked with and more significantly in my own life.

Of course, failure of any kind is never pleasant. It comes clothed in pain, and needs time to recover. But invariably, if we analyse it carefully, failure is accompanied by a purpose. As Malcolm Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine once said, “Failure is success if we learn from it”.

If you learn from your experience, if your failure inspires you to surpass yourself and do it better the next time, if you understand that failure is merely a momentary event but never defines a person - then you have got the bearings right, and your failure was a small price you paid for your eventual success.

Part of life

Failure is part of life. I once considered myself a failure because I couldn’t get into a Sri Lankan State University and couldn’t get a job in one of the best ten companies. These were my ego-driven pursuits of looking good on paper. However, each one of them brought something new to my life.

Not getting into state university was a blessing in disguise. Thanks to my continuous efforts, I got admitted to a leading university in India, which transformed me through high exposure to foreign students with unique and different cultures.

Not getting into the best ten companies was also a blessing. The 8-month struggle, of one rejection after another, lead to more determination. I joined a well-recognised medium sized company, and within ten years, became a Director. I am happy about the way my ‘failures’ turned me out.

You might think that looking at every failure in life as a blessing in disguise, is naive or idealistic. But, one never knows, maybe if you looked at every problem or challenge realistically, you’d be on a level far beyond what you initially thought was possible. What you need is determination.

Learner or non-learner

Benjamin Barber, a renowned American political scientist was once asked his opinion about the common division of people as a success or failure. His insights deserve to be observed and committed to memory by every one of us:

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, the success and failure, or those who make it or those who don’t. I don’t even divide the world into the extrovert and the introvert, or those who hear the inner voice or the outer, because we all hear some of both.”

“I divide the world into learners and non-learners. There are people who learn, who are open to what happens around them, who listen and hear the lessons. When they do something stupid, they don’t do it again. When they do something that works, they do it even better and harder the next time.”

The question to ask is, not whether you are a success or a failure, but whether you are a learner or a non-learner.