Success and failure

Key points

  • We need to set our grid for success and failure according to a Kingdom mindset
  • Should we have better terms than success and failure – ones that also encapsulate the journey as well as the outcome – flourishing or fruitfulness?

“Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”

J. K Rowling

“You will find true success when you find me,
for I have insight into wise plans that are designed just for you.
I hold in my hands living-understanding, courage, and strength.”

Proverbs 8 v 14 TPT

In Helsingborg in Sweden there is a Museum of Failure1. Ironically, it’s proved to be popular! It houses over seventy failed products from around the world, such as Sony’s Betamax, Harley Davidson’s motorbike-scented perfume, and a beef lasagne marketed by none other than Colgate. The purpose of the Museum is actually to highlight the role of failure in the risky business of product innovation2

In a Kingdom worldview what is entrepreneurial success and failure?

Failure is an interesting event. It can be traumatic, evoking a range of emotions; frustration, anger, repentance etc, but its real usefulness is as a way of learning. These emotions place us out of control and beyond the limit of our own resourcefulness and cause us to re-evaluate what we are doing. These are places we wouldn’t choose to be, but they are places we need to get to. As Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward 3:

“we must stumble and fall … we must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide.”

Success teaches us what we’re good at, but failure is also an excellent teacher

We need to disempower the thinking that failure is to do with personal failing.

Success teaches us what we are good at, and contributes to us understanding our God-given gifts, capabilities and skills. It builds self-worth and confidence. However, failure is also an excellent teacher. As Nick Tatchell says, “failure means resisting the instinct to retract our wounded hands and conceal our disappointed hearts. Instead, we donate our personal ‘exhibits’ of failure to a God who longs to teach us that he is trustworthy and gracious.”

Failure can be defined as: “a deviation from expected and desired results”. I find this helpful. It disempowers the thinking that failure is to do with personal failing. It helps us to disassociate ourselves from the supposed correlation between an outcome not being fully achieved and being a failure, that you’re not good enough, and that you should give up. Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb (where would we be without these – I’d be typing in the dark right now!) ‘failed’ hundreds, or perhaps thousands of times before he   achieved his ‘desired outcome’. He famously said: 

“I have not failed. I have found a thousand ways that won’t work. I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt attempted is another step forward”

Henry Ford, the Father of the Ford enterprise famously said: 

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently”

Proverbs 16 v 1-3 says:

“The plans of the heart belong to man,
but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.
All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes,
but the Lord weighs the spirit. 
Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.”

Or as The Passion Translation says:

“Before you do anything,
put your trust totally in God and not in yourself. 
Then every plan you make will succeed.”

As entrepreneurs we need to have our goals firmly set on achieving the desired result. We need persistence. As the apostle Peter wrote in his second epistle:

“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Peter 1 v5-8

Nobody sets out as an entrepreneur to fail. You don’t want to bring a novel service or a niche product to the market, put so much of yourself into it with the intention of failing! A frequently quoted statistic is that entrepreneurs average 3.8 failures before final success. What sets the successful ones apart is their amazing persistence, learning from mistakes, putting that right, brushing themselves down and moving forwards again.

Let’s be clear.  I’m not talking here about what we could call moral failure. I’m talking about entrepreneurial failure. First, let’s consider business failure. If you’re an entrepreneur of a business or businesses, then you need to make profit. That’s true whether you run a for profit or not-for-profit. That’s a given. There needs to be profit for investment, for research and development and so on, and depending on your business type, a return to investors and shareholders.  So, when I talk about success and failure, profitability is always a key indicator. Businesses and enterprises fail if they are not profitable. How quickly they fail depends on financial reserves, and the willingness of investors, shareholders and lenders to keep the business trading. Another key factor is cash-flow. I talked about my cashflow challenges in the previous post (Contending). 

Metrics and key performance indicators are vital for any type of business. How else will we know whether the business is profitable, how profitable, whether the business is cash solvent, where new orders are coming from and what’s in the sales pipeline. These are tools to help us to target success and prevent failure.

Reflections on success and failure

Was Jesus a failure or did he succeed? It seems a blasphemous (or at least strange) question but take a look at it at the end of his earthly ministry:

  1. He was crucified as a blaspheming villain
  2. all his followers left him, or at best all but a few did
  3. his ‘movement’ appeared to have died out.

If you had viewed this on the day the answer would most probably have been ‘yes’. But of course, we know differently. Now we can look and say that he was extraordinarily successful! We can look at how we’re doing one day, and things seems pretty desperate, but look back some years later and that seeming failure has been turned to great success.

Was the apostle Paul a failure or did he succeed? He, with only a few other helpers, spread the message of Jesus throughout much of the Roman Empire, established churches in centres of commercial influence, and replicated himself wherever he went. Great success! But at what cost?

“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” 

2 Corinthians 11 v24 – 29 ESV

In many places he had to work to support his ministry. He didn’t have a strong ministry support base! Is this success or would we view these results of our ministry in terms of our personal distress to be a mark of failure. 

Is persecution a sign of success in the Kingdom!? 

“How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So, leap for joy—since your heavenly reward is great”.

Matthew 5 v10-12 TPT


 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” ESV

Blessed means that congratulations are in order!

Blessed in Greek means to experience something for which congratulations are in order! In Aramaic it means enriched, fortunate, great happiness, abundant goodness, delightful, blissful, content and blessed. It means to have the capacity to enjoy union and communion with God. Surely this is success in the Kingdom of God! Accolades from our peers and contemporaries are great, and welcome, but an accolade from our heavenly Father is so much better!! Well done good and faithful servant is surely the best accolade you can receive.

What’s God’s return on investment in us!?

The parable of the talents can be summarised as managing well with what we have been entrusted by God – providing God with a good return in terms of fruitfulness. 

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” 

Matthew 25 v21

The word success appears only 14 times in the Bible, and not at all in the New Testament! It relates to how specific people lived, or how God showed them how to live – Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, David, and Solomon. Nehemiah prayed for it in the context of bringing about a national revival – which God answered very positively!

Is success then living life well, of flourishing in life?

“Hold on to loyal love and don’t let go and be faithful to all that you’ve been taught. Let your life be shaped by integrity, with truth written upon your heart. That’s how you will find favour and understanding with both God and men— you will gain the reputation of living life well.” 

Proverbs 3 v 3-4 TPT

Would it be better to have new terms instead of success and failure? Perhaps fruitfulness?

There can be fruitfulness metrics in terms of providing a good return to our heavenly Father. What about prosperous – as in prosperous soul (3 John v 2), or flourishing? 

“Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.”

Flourishing anticipates fruitfulness

I favour flourishing because it encapsulates Jesus’ phrase ‘abundant life’ but acknowledges that life includes trials, which are endured, and perseverance which some seasons of life require. Flourishing doesn’t deny that life can at times be tough, and can include failure, but it does suggest that all of life can be lived by the grace and favour of God, and with the reality at all times that God is good, he works all things together for our good as we are called by him, and that we live in union with Christ, a son or daughter of our heavenly Father, and unconditionally loved. In this truth we live in a heavenly environment where we grow and live in a healthy and vigorous way. I think that flourishing anticipates fruitfulness. God’s blessing over us was to be fruitful and to multiply (Gen 1v22). He repeated it to Noah (Gen 8v17), Isaac repeated it to Jacob (Gen 28v3), and God repeated it to Jacob (Gen 35v11). Jesus expects fruitfulness as we abide in him (John 15v5) and so we will prove to be his disciples (John 15v8).

“But the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit within you is divine love in all its varied expressions: joy that overflows, peace that subdues, patience that endures, kindness in action, a life full of virtue, that prevails, gentleness of heart, and strength of spirit.  Never set the law above these qualities, for they are meant to be limitless.”

Galatians 5 v 22-23 TPT

How do we measure success, and therefore learn from failure?

Success and failure are generally not binary, while accepting that ultimately failure is the business declaring administration or bankruptcy. My conviction is that above all success for a Kingdom entrepreneur is one who creates the environment for those whom we personally associate with to encounter God for themselves, for the Kingdom to come to them. But then there are many other expressions of the Kingdom:

  • providing products or services that bless your customers, making life easier for them
  • providing employment for people who have found it difficult to hold down jobs
  • committing to give a percentage of your profit to charity/good causes
  • training young people or those of mature age in new skills for their improved employability
  • being an influencer in a specific market sector
  • bringing to market a new product or service that provides a countercultural (i.e. Kingdom culture) viewpoint or influence, e.g. buying from the poorest countries and setting new standards in code of conduct in terms of employment, pay and employee wellbeing 
  • fashion brands that do not sexualise the wearer etc
  • promoting a novel approach to environmental protection or health and medical care
  • being cultural ambassadors, social policymakers or representatives of the people in the ‘corridors of power’
  • and so on.

My experience

In my own experience of founding and running a vibrant consultancy there were times in growing the business I could see from analysing our growth in clients that recruiting key personnel at a very senior level was becoming very important. Otherwise we would quickly reach a point where we were saturated with the client work, we had and would be unable to continue to grow. I sensed God prompting me to act and I set out to implement this growth strategy. The first phase was to bring in another Director or very senior associate who would grow the business with me and add value. My first attempt partially succeeded but ultimately failed. We found out the model that we were trying to adopt for the growth was not sustainable in the long term. The second attempt proved to be very successful. I invited someone who I had known for some years and following detailed discussion and negotiation he became a director allowing us to open an office in the south of England. 

Together we then sought to add an office in Scotland staffed by a principal consultant. We’re been successful in winning a number of contracts in Scotland and as a result staff, including the Principals, were finding it necessary to commute to Scotland. This was okay in the short-term but for a number of reasons was not the right long-term model. On the third attempt to recruit we found a person with the right skills base. Within a couple of years, we had three consultants in Scotland working mainly with clients in Scotland and the north of England. We needed to see the long-term goal and not be put off by the short-term failure to implement the strategy. Finding the right people was the key for growth. It would have been wasted effort to have tried to grow without these individuals in place.

Keeping a healthy perspective

So, my experience is that success and failure are not single events and should never be viewed over the short term. In cultures that anticipate swift returns on investment I suggest that there can be conflicts between what God releases to us and what our investors anticipate or expect.

What timescale do we set to achieve success?

What timescale do we set to achieve success? Is it solely in terms of return on investment, meeting sales targets and so on? I don’t suggest that these are unimportant, particularly where the business is funded by investors who are looking for their return. I was fortunate here in that the businesses had grown organically, and we didn’t need to approach business angels or investors. But taking steps that seem to fail is all part of learning how to succeed. My approach in running the businesses was that I was CEO, but God was Chairman of the Board! His Lordship had to be relevant to the businesses as much as it was in my personal life. It wasn’t right to segregate different aspects of life; either I was following Jesus, or I wasn’t!

What we see as failure may well not be how God sees it! He is more interested in the process to build our character. As the famous US basketball coach John Wooden says:

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”5

On that day when we give an account of our lives to God what will we say? Will it be, I earned lots of money for you, I supported this ministry and that mission, and this church and that work? That’s commendable, and laudable, and it is an expression of the Kingdom of God within us. But the challenge is; did we also create an environment in us, and around us in our spheres of influence for people to encounter God for themselves and for the Kingdom of God to be demonstrated by us on earth as it is in heaven? That surely is true fruitfulness and success.

“When your success goes to your head and your failure goes to your heart, you always carry your struggles home.”

Carey Nieuwhof

  1. Nick Tatchell first alerted me to the Museum of Failure and the quote by Richard Rohr. Nick is a regular contributor to the LICC Connecting with Culture features at:
  2. For further information see the TEDxClug presentation – “Failure is an excellent teacher” by Rebecca Ribbing
  3. Richard Rohr. Falling Upward: a spirituality for the two halves of life. 2012. SPCK
  4. John Maxwell. Falling Forward: turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. 2000. Thomas Nelson Inc.
  5. John Wooden with Jack Tobin. “They Call Me Coach”. 2003. McGraw Hill Professional. ISBN 978-0-07-142491-2.