Can a television commercial teach you character?

I recently was describing this commercial to a friend on the telephone as one of my all-time favorite commercials. Growing up, I had never been exposed to the concept that failure is an inevitable and important ingredient of success…and I didn’t expect my first exposure to come in the form of a Nike commercial.

However, this is a lesson you can easily miss if you don’t participate in organized sports. In math, nobody expects you to get a certain percentage of the problems wrong. In English, no one expects you to incorrectly define a certain percentage of vocabulary. In academia, no one expects you to do anything wrong.

The problem is that life doesn’t work like math class. In class, you read the chapter, learn the lesson, do the practice tests, and then hopefully get 100% on your test. In basketball, you train for years, do drills until you hurt for days, play thousands of hours – and then you’re amazing if you can shoot 50% from the field.

I’m certainly not saying failure is more acceptable in sports. On the contrary, people usually care more about winning in basketball than they do in math class.  I think it has more to do with preparation and the fear of failure. In sports, you risk failure by even being in the game. Yet in academia, you can study hard and prepare well and never come close to failing in your entire academic career. This is great for your transcript, but terrible for later in life…when you are confronted by risks that might reasonably end in failure. Should you start that new business? Well, it might fail. Again. Yet no one suggests you don’t try to hit the game winning shot because you have a 50% chance of failure and you missed once before.

These experiences explain why many successful people have a background in sports – or in skilled games of chance, which teach many of the same lessons.

So next time you take on a project or a career that has a real chance of failure, or embark on a path that has led you astray before…just remember that success and failure are intertwined and it’s hard to capture one consistently without experiencing your fair share of the other.