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The secret of success? Not getting what you want

Failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing, says Viv Groskop. In fact, it could lead you to bigger, better opportunities. So, why not embrace it?

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By Viv Groskop on

I’m pretty cynical about self-help and the advice of self-appointed gurus. Not because I avoid self-help books and the world of Oprah, but because I have frequently – disturbingly frequently – immersed myself in it and I really know what I am talking about. (Nuclear fusion not so much.) I have been there, done that, lost the weight, put it back on again, meditated, chanted (oh, yes), made a vision board, lost the weight again, bought an abundance crystal and given the abundance crystal away to charity.

So, what I am saying is that it takes quite a lot to impress me and certainly for me to think that someone is doing something new and exciting in this arena. But I have found this thing called Tribe Of Mentors: Short Life Advice From The Best In The World by Timothy Ferriss. If you read one self-help book this year, let this be it. If you have always hated self-help books, this one will change your mind.

Tribe Of Mentors is a hefty doorstop of a book featuring jaw-droppingly fascinating interviews – some short, some long – with over a hundred people who have achieved success on their own terms. There are billionaire Silicon Valley gurus you will never have heard of, extraordinary sports coaches who rose from poverty to train the best in the world, chess players, code writers, cryptocurrency experts (stay with me) and Dita Von Teese, Maria Sharapova, Ben Stiller, Arianna Huffington, Neil Gaiman and Brené Brown. (OK, now you’re back with me. If you don’t know who Brené Brown is, get outta here.)

The common thread running through all their answers? Their attitude to failure – they embrace it. Not only because it brings progress, but because failure and success are both an illusion. Sometimes something that looks like a failure is actually leading you to something more important and more personally significant that is meant for you.

Sometimes something that looks like a failure is actually leading you to something more important and more personally significant that is meant for you

Dita Von Teese failed at her dream to be a ballet dancer before she discovered the gateway to the giant champagne glass. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was rejected at auditions for a year before he decided to edit videos of himself, which led to a whole other career – and more acting opportunities. Susan Cain, the bestselling author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, burst into tears in front of her boss when she was told she wouldn’t make partner of her law firm. She quit and became a writer.

Of course, often these answers are drawn from the worlds of people who clearly have full control over their own time (because they are CEOs or celebrities). These are not people who have to worry about failing. And yet they do worry. And they do fail. They fail hugely and publicly. Ben Stiller on his movie The Cable Guy: “Everyone hated it and no one went. It was pretty shocking, mainly because I never experienced such a high-profile project not doing well. It hurt.” The lesson? Sometimes a project connects with the audience. Sometimes it doesn’t. All you can do is do your best in the moment when you make it.

The best synthesis of all this advice on failure comes from Ferriss, himself a brilliant (if extremely intense) mentor: “If it seems like the world has ended, perhaps it’s just the world forcing you to look through a different, better door. As [Humans Of New York creator] Brandon Stanton put it, ‘Sometimes you need to allow life to save you from what you want.’” Relax and lean into the thing you got that you didn’t want.


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