“Failing Forward” by John Maxwell: Book Summary

1 Line Summary

How to Turn Mistakes into Opportunities of Learning, Growth and Success” is the single question, John Maxwell answers in the book “Failing Forward“.

What Will You Learn

  • Failure is not the opposite of success, but a part of it. You can use failure as a stepping stone to achieve your goals.
  • Successful people fail more than average people, because they take more risks and try more things.
  • You can change your attitude towards failure and see it as an opportunity to grow, rather than a setback. You can overcome the fear of failure and take action despite the risks.

Best Quotations from the Book

  • “I know of only one factor that separates those who consistently shine from those who don’t: The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. Nothing else has the same kind of impact on people’s ability to achieve and to accomplish whatever their minds and hearts desire.”
  • “Successful people have learned to do what does not come naturally. Nothing worth achieving comes easily. The only way to fail forward and achieve your dreams is to cultivate tenacity and persistence.
  • “Little progress is better than no progress at all. Success comes in taking many small steps. If you stumble in a small step, it rarely matters. Don’t gift wrap the garbage. Let little failures go.”
  • “A winner knows how much he still has to learn, even when he is considered an expert by others. A loser wants to be considered an expert by others before he has learned enough to know how little he knows.”
  • “Great minds have purposes; others have wishes. Little minds are subdued by misfortunes; but great minds rise above them.”
  • “Commitment makes you capable of failing forward until you reach your goals. Cutting corners is really a sign of impatience and poor self-discipline.”
  • “Success is in the journey, the continual process. And no matter how hard you work, you will not create the perfect plan or execute it without error.”

Book Summary

Here are some of the key takeaways from the book:

What’s the Main Difference Between People Who Achieve and People Who Are Average?

The root cause of achievement is not family background, wealth, opportunity, high morals or absence of hardships; there is only one factor:

  • The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.
  • There are many ways to be a winner, but there is really only one way to be a loser and that is to fail and not look beyond the failure.

Overall there is one difference between Successful and Unsuccessful People, whether they are Failing Forward or Backward.

Failing ForwardFailing Backward
Blaming OthersTaking Responsibility
Repeating the Same MistakesLearning from Each Mistake
Expecting Never to Fail AgainKnowing Failure Is a Part of Progress
Accepting Tradition BlindlyChallenging Outdated Assumptions
Being Limited by Past MistakesTaking New Risks
Thinking I am a FailureBelieving Something Didn’t Work

Get a New Definition of Failure and Success

If you’re a human being, you’re going to make mistakes.

  • The difference between greatness and mediocrity is often how an individual views a mistake.
  • One of the greatest problems people have with failure is that they are too quick to judge isolated situations in their lives and label them as failures. Instead, they need to keep the bigger picture in mind.
  • Errors become mistakes when we perceive them and respond to them incorrectly. Mistakes become failures when we continually respond to them incorrectly.

Success is defined in three terms:

  • Knowing your purpose in life,
  • Growing to reach your potential,
  • Sowing seeds that benefit others

The average for entrepreneurs is 3.8 failures before they finally make it in business.

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

If You’ve Failed, Are You a Failure?

Failure isn’t so bad if it doesn’t attack the heart. Success is all right if it doesn’t go to the head.

Tell yourself “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something.” There’s a big difference.

The approach to encourage and lead others:

  • Value people,
  • Praise effort,
  • Reward performance.

Seven Abilities Needed to Fail Forward

  • Achievers Reject Rejection
  • Achievers See Failure as Temporary
  • Achievers See Failures as Isolated Incidents
  • Achievers Keep Expectations Realistic
  • Achievers Focus on Strengths
  • Achievers Vary Approaches to Achievement
  • Achievers Bounce Back

Remove the “You” from Failure

  • Review your goals for that area and write them down. Are they attainable? Do you demand perfection from yourself? Do you think you can achieve everything on the first go? How many errors do you foresee before you reach success? Revise your goals accordingly.
  • Explore different strategies to do your work. Generate at least twenty innovative ideas, and then implement at least ten of them.
  • Concentrate on your strengths. How can you leverage your best talents and personal attributes to optimize your performance?
  • Commit to resilience. No matter how often you trip down, stand up and continue.

Fear of Failure Stops Forward Progress in Following Ways

  • Paralysis: The worst danger we face is the danger of being paralyzed by doubts and fears. This danger is brought on by those who abandon faith and sneer at hope.
  • Procrastination: Procrastination steals a person’s time, productivity, and potential. Procrastination is too high a price to pay for fear of failure.
  • Purposelessness: Rather than pursuing worthy objectives, they avoid the pain of making mistakes; and in the midst of that transition, they lose sight of any sense of purpose.
  • Excuses: A person can break out of the fear cycle only by taking personal responsibility for his inaction.
  • Misused energy: Constant fear divides the mind and causes a person to lose focus. It’s comparable to pressing the accelerator of a car that’s in neutral.
  • Hopelessness: If allowed to run their course, continual fear and inaction rob a person of hope.

Find the Exit Off the Failure Freeway

Don’t let questions confuse you. Just pick what you want and forget the rest. This helps you make good decisions, take charge, not be afraid; and this way you develop personality.

If you always do what you’ve always done, then you will always get what you’ve always gotten.

Common Reactions to Failures

  • Blow Up: One reaction to failure that keeps people driving on the failure freeway is anger. You’ve probably seen it. People make a minor mistake and angrily overreact to it, taking out their frustration on themselves or others around them.
  • Cover Up: It’s in the nature of people to try to cover up their mistakes.
  • Speed Up: Particularly stubborn people sometimes try to leave their troubles behind by working harder and faster, but without changing their direction.
  • Back Up: Have you ever been talking with someone who made a thoughtless remark during a conversation, and as soon as he said it, you could tell he knew he had made a mistake? Yet when you called him on it, he refused to admit it. No matter what you said, he kept backing up and trying to justify the remark.
  • Give Up: If you stay on the failure freeway long enough, you eventually slow up. Ninety percent of all those who fail are not actually defeated; they simply quit.


Mistakes are . . .

  • Messages that give us feedback about life.
  • Interruptions that should cause us to reflect and think.
  • Signposts that direct us to the right path.
  • Tests that push us toward greater maturity.
  • Awakenings that keep us in the game mentally.
  • Keys that we can use to unlock the next door of opportunity.
  • Explorations that let us journey where we’ve never been before.
  • Statements about our development and progress.

The one quality that all successful people have is the ability to take on responsibility.

It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of our responsibilities. Change Your Response to Failure by Accepting Responsibility

Five Signs that Show People Not Getting Out of Their Past Experiences

  • Comparison: If you hear people continually talk about how much harder they’ve had it than anyone else, chances are, they are allowing themselves to be held hostage by their past.
  • Rationalization: It means, believing that there are good reasons not to get over past difficulties. Rationalization creates a fog that hinders people from finding solutions to their problems.
  • Isolation: Some people withdraw due to their past hurts; for many, it’s like a natural reflex that kicks in for self-protection.
  • Regret: A significant hindrance to living life in the present is regret. It weakens people’s energy and leaves little enabling them to do anything positive.
  • Bitterness: People who don’t get beyond the problems or the pain of the past eventually become bitter. It is the inevitable consequence of not processing old injuries and tragedies.

Every major difficulty you face in life is a fork in the road. You choose which track you will head down, toward breakdown or breakthrough.

Don’t let the failure from outside get inside you. Say good-bye to yesterday.

Four Steps to Reach Your Potential

  • See Yourself Clearly: Many people see all the bad and deny the good, or they see all the good and deny the bad. To reach your potential, you must see both.
  • Admit Your Flaws Honestly: That means owning up to what you cannot do (based on skill), should not do (based on talent), and ought not do (based on character). That’s not always easy to do.
  • Discover Your Strengths Joyfully: No one ever achieved his dreams working outside his areas of gifting. To excel, do what you do well.
  • Build on Those Strengths Passionately: You can reach your potential tomorrow if you dedicate yourself to growth today. Remember, to change your world, you must first change yourself.

Recognize this:

  • Not realizing what you want is a problem of knowledge.
  • Not pursuing what you want is a problem of motivation.
  • Not achieving what you want is a problem of persistence.

How can you turn your focus from yourself and start adding value to others?

  • Putting Others First in Your Thinking: To add value to others, you need to start putting others ahead of yourself in your mind and heart.
  • Finding Out What Others Need: Listen to people. Ask them what matters to them. And observe them. If you can discover how people spend their time and money, you’ll know what they value.
  • Meeting That Need with Excellence and Generosity: Once you know what matters to people, do your best to meet their needs with excellence and generosity. Offer your best with no thought toward what you might receive in return.

Many people who struggle with chronic failure do so because they think of no one but themselves.

Everything works for a reason; either it solves a problem or does something good, not for itself, but for others. If it doesn’t do that, it loses money and stops working.

The person interested in success has to learn to view failure as a healthy, inevitable part of the process of getting to the top.

The Two Types of People

When it comes to taking risks, there are two kinds of people:

Don’t-Dare-Try-It PeopleDon’t-Dare-Miss-It People
They resist opportunitiesThey find opportunities
They rationalize their responsibilitiesThey finish their responsibilities
They rehearse impossibilitiesThey feed on impossibilities
They rest before they finishThey finish before they rest
They reject the personal cost involvedThey finance the cost into their lifestyle
They replace goals with pleasureThey find pleasure in the goal
They rejoice that they have not failedThey fear futility, not failure
They rethink their commitmentThey fulfill their commitments
They reverse their decisionThey finalize their decision

Six Traps that Make People Back Away from Risks

People tend to fall into one or more of the following six traps:

  • The Embarrassment Trap: Deep down, nobody wants to look bad. The only way to become better is to take steps forward—even shaky ones that cause you to fall down. Little progress is better than no progress at all.
  • The Rationalization Trap: People who are caught in the rationalization trap second- guess everything they do. If you take risks and fail, you’ll have fewer regrets than if you do nothing and fail.
  • The Unrealistic Expectation Trap: Success takes hard work. Begin with the mind-set that you have to row; then if you receive help, it will be a pleasant surprise.
  • The Fairness Trap: Life is not equal. It will never be. Stop crying and complaining and do something about it. Life is not equal. It will never be. Stop crying and complaining and do something about it.
  • The Timing Trap: Some people tend to think that there’s a perfect time to do everything— so they wait. If you wait for perfect timing, you’ll wait forever. And the more you wait, the more tired you’ll get. 
  • The Inspiration Trap: Many people want to wait for inspiration before they are willing to step out and take a risk. When you have a good idea, act on it soon. If you wait too long, you might never do it.

How to Learn from Failures

  • Always begin the learning process by trying to identify the cause of a problem.
  • As you examine your problems, don’t allow an unrealistic expectation to kill you.
  • Don’t allow the fire of adversity to make you a doubter; allow it to purify you.
  • If you maintain a teachable attitude as you approach the process and try to learn anything you can about what you could do differently, you will improve yourself.
  • As you come away from a failure, try to cultivate a similar sense of gratitude.
  • If there is any single factor that makes for success in living, it is the ability to draw dividends from defeat. If you’re willing to try, you can often pick up something of value from any disaster.
  • People say there are two kinds of learning: experience, which is gained from your own mistakes, and wisdom, which is learned from the mistakes of others. Learning from your failures is always easier with the help of a wise counselor.
  • Once you’ve done all the thinking, you’ve got to figure out what to do next. You haven’t learned a thing until you can take action and use it.

Ten Reasons Why People Fail

  • Poor People Skills: By far the greatest single obstacle to success is a poor understanding of people. The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.
  • Negative Attitude: If your circumstances constantly get you down, then maybe it’s time for a change—not in your situation, but in your attitude. If you can learn to make the best of any situation, you can remove a formidable obstacle that stands between you and your dreams.
  • Bad Fit: Sometimes a case of mismatched abilities, interests, personality, or values can be a major contributor to chronic failure. Evaluate yourself and your situation. If there is a poor fit, think about making a change.
  • Lack of Focus: Bad things happen when a person doesn’t focus. If you go from task to task to task without making any progress, examine your focus. No one can move forward without it.
  • Weak Commitment: If you’re committed, a failure doesn’t mean that you’ll never succeed, it just means you will take a little longer. Commitment makes you capable of failing forward until you reach your goals.
  • Unwillingness to Change: Perhaps the most ruthless enemy of achievement, personal growth, and success is inflexibility. If you resist change, you’re really resisting success. Learn flexibility, or learn to like living with your failures.
  • A Shortcut Mind-Set: A common obstacle to success is the desire to cut corners and take the short road to success, but shortcuts never pay off in the long run. To be successful, you have to be willing to pay your dues.
  • Relying on Talent Alone: Talent is overrated, because talent alone isn’t enough to take a person through the multiple failures that life brings. Talent remains a constant, and those who rely upon that gift alone, without developing further, peak quickly and soon fade to anonymity.
  • A Response to Poor Information: Successful executives have in common the ability to make weighty decisions based on limited amounts of information. But they also have in common the ability to gather reliable information to use as they evaluate issues.
  • No Goals: The last major cause of failure is an absence of goals. If you can discover the weakness that weakens you, then you can start doing something about it. And that can change your life.

How to Cultivate Resilience in the Face of Failures

Here is a four-point plan for approaching achievement that will encourage stamina and resilience in the face of failures.

1. Purpose: Find One

More than anything else, what keeps a person going in the midst of adversity is having a sense of purpose. It is the fuel that powers persistence. Use the following steps to help you develop a desire:

  • Get next to people who possess great desire.
  • Develop discontent with the status quo.
  • Search for a goal that excites you.
  • Put your most vital possessions into that goal.
  • Visualize yourself enjoying the rewards of that goal.

2. Excuses: Eliminate Them

You have to forget about making excuses and keep moving forward.  Take complete responsibility for yourself, and keep trying.

3. Incentives: Develop Some

Nothing helps a person remain persistent like a good incentive, that’s why so many companies use them with their employees. As you develop incentives for yourself, keep these things in mind:

  • Reward yourself only after you reach the goal.
  • Divide the process into stages to multiply the rewards.
  • Include others—that increases accountability and makes achievement more enjoyable.

4. Determination: Cultivate It

To develop persistence over the long haul, you have to cultivate inward determination on a continual basis. Learn to become a determined individual, the only difference between a little shot and a big shot is that the big shot kept shooting.

The FORWARD Approach

Finalize Your Goal

Settle on a definite goal you want to reach.

 Recognize this:

  • The goal shapes the plan.
  • The plan shapes the action.
  • The action achieves the results.
  • The results bring success.

If you cannot finalize your goal, you won’t be able to turn failures into successes.

Order your Plans

By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail. The man who is prepared has his battle half fought.

Risk Failing by Taking Action

Planning alone won’t bring success, the other half of the battle is taking action. Moving forward on a plan and actually doing it always involves risk; and that’s good because nothing of value is achieved without risk.

Welcome Mistakes

He who makes no mistakes never makes anything. The only way you will be able to fail forward is to accept mistakes as a part of your life, learn from them and improve.

Advance Based on Your Character

Every time you face mistakes and attempt to move forward, character may be the only thing you have to draw on to keep you going. Prepare for that moment and know that it’s coming—and you increase your chances for winning your way through it.

Reevaluate Your Progress Continually

By fighting through the difficult times and overcoming mistakes, you have the opportunity to learn and adjust. Sometimes, one moment can make you win or lose. The brave person knows and grabs the moment by trying very hard and very smart.

Develop New Strategies to Succeed

A competitive world has two possibilities for you. You can lose, or, if you want to win, you can change. Success is in the journey, the continual process. Failures are milestones on the success journey. Each time you plan, risk, fail, reevaluate, and adjust, you have another opportunity to begin again, only better than the last time.

How to Fail Forward: A Step-by- Step Plan

  • Realize there is one major difference between average people and achieving people.
  • Learn a new definition of failure.
  • Remove the “you” fromfailure.
  • Take action and reduce your fear.
  • Change your response to failure by accepting responsibility.
  • Don’t let the failure from outside get inside you.
  • Say good-bye to yesterday.
  • Change yourself, and your world changes.
  • Get over yourself and start giving yourself.
  • Find the benefit in every bad experience.
  • If at first you do succeed, try something harder.
  • Learn from a bad experience and make it a good experience.
  • Work on the weakness that weakens you.
  • Understand there’s not much difference between failure and success.
  • Get up, get over it, get going.

Don’t let failure stop you from reaching your full potential. Learn how to fail forward and start your journey to success today. Read “Failing Forward” now and get ready to transform your life!

Enlighten yourself with “Code of the Extraordinary Mind”, “Eat that Frog”, “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself”, “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”, “12 Rules for LifeandThe Productivity Code as well.

2 thoughts on ““Failing Forward” by John Maxwell: Book Summary”

  1. Whether we are successful now or have been in the past, we are all involved in the process of “Failing Forward”. I wholeheartedly believe that to achieve success we must all be prepared to live by these words. There are many other excellent books written by the same author.

  2. Pingback: 14 Essential Traits of a Great Leader and How to Develop Them »

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