Why people who fail at first inspire us to succeed

Jan 19, 2018

Earlier this week, Matthew Syed’s article in the Times, ‘Why Harry Kane was so nearly lost in game’s age-gap’, really caught my attention.

Why, Syed asked, did this 24-year-old footballer with the potential to become the finest English player since Sir Bobby Charlton, so nearly never make it.

  • 39 Premier League strikes broke records that stood for a decade.
  • Tottenham’s highest Premier League scorer.
  • The ability to exploit space and time to his advantage and to deliver passes with remarkable range.
  • Admired for his success.

Yet Kane was rejected by Arsenal’s under-eights’ team after just one season, failed his first trial at Spurs and was spurned by Watford.

Syed asked, how could Kane’s potential have been so overlooked by coaches? Every industry has similar stories of experts who fail to spot talent-in-the-making but with Kane, Syed sensed something more.

Relative age effect

He found the answer in Kane’s birthdate. Born late July, so toward the end of the academic school year, Kane was always one of the youngest on the field. In some cases, that would mean almost a year behind fellow teammates in speed, height and physical maturity.

It also means that older, stronger players tend to stand out more quickly on the playing field, wrote Syed. ‘Outmuscled’ and ‘outsprinted’, younger players like Kane then get overlooked.

The problem, called the ‘relative age effect’, is common for players with late birthdays because of the cut-off date for intakes to sport academies, and not just in football but also in other sports such as ice hockey, baseball and basketball.

And it’s the same in education, where younger children are frequently slower than older learners in the same class.

How Kane overcame his disadvantage

But what’s most important for us here is what Kane did. He focused his energies on developing an advantage elsewhere, in technique, skill and guile. He found ways around his obstacles, and the abilities borne from this ‘disadvantage’ served in his favour. He built muscles in places where other players had little or none.

As a coach who helps graduates build a better career, I encounter people just like Kane all the time. Different playing field, same game.

If you persevere and stay in your game – in this case, to find your dream graduate-level position – you will eventually succeed. No, it isn’t easy. Yes, you get knock-backs that deflate your spirit. But if you persevere you will eventually develop advantages others do not have. You will profit from your difficult start. You will learn to become more resilient, self-reliant and confident, and a better problem solver, than if you had had the thing handed to you sooner.

But you must push yourself, learning from your experiences each step of the way.

Rise from the ashes

I’d like to contrast Kane’s story with that of Bozoma Saint John, chief brand officer at Uber (and previously marketing executive officer at Apple Music).

Born in Ghana, Bozoma grew up in Colorado, USA. She’s a woman known for being bold and going for top leadership positions, but how did she develop the attitude that got her there?

Well, when Bozoma was five years old her family had to flee Ghana because her politician father was arrested following a coup. Her mother was pregnant at the time and had two smaller children. Although they were all eventually reunited the family had to move around several times… back to Africa and then to America, eventually settling in Colorado.

Bozoma said that because of this she often identified her life with ‘things burning to the ground and then rising again from the ashes’. She has never been afraid of losing all and having to start over. It made her resilient. She experienced this ‘loss’ as a positive thing and said that whenever she’s had to start over things have always worked out better – whether moving to a new country, running for school council for the second or third time, or applying for a highly competitive position at a top international company.

You can succeed

As a nation, we are far more interested in stories of how people succeed after first failing. Stories about Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Richard Branson and others like them are all the more fascinating not because they succeeded but because they failed at first. They inspire us, give us hope. They could have given up but didn’t, and we want to know why and how they eventually succeeded. Because we recognise that we can do the same.

Failing first gives you the opportunity to experience and learn many things. Set-backs, rejections and failures are not denials of opportunity but a chance to discover and open other doors.

Yes, when we experience a set-back we should take time out to acknowledge our emotions and look at what we can learn from the experience. But we should not dwell on those failures for too long. We must get up, like Harry Kane, and try again.


Matthew Syed, ‘Why Harry Kane was so nearly lost in game’s age-gap’

Tim Ferris, Lessons from Bozoma Saint John, Spike Lee to Uber, Ghana to Colorado

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