How a resume of failures led the best to succeed

In their latest book, 'Leapfrog', Mukesh Sud and Priyank Narayan write about six practices to thrive at work. This is part of the chapter on being intellectually humble—the third step to excelling.

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I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

This was Michael Jordan in a Nike commercial. He doesn’t like his success being attributed to talent or luck.

Why would anyone want to talk about their failures?

To answer that, let’s go back to 2010, a year Brazilian football fans will not easily forget. Ronaldinho had just been dropped from the national team for the FIFA World Cup.

Melanie Stefan also remembers that year. After a PhD in biomedical Sciences, Melanie had been applying for fellowships.

That day she received yet another rejection.

How did Melanie react?

Cool, I am like Ronaldinho.

Melanie went on to become a computational neuroscientist. Recalling her early rejections, she wrote an article in Nature, a top ranking journal, wondering why we always build a narrative of our successes but gloss over our failures. After all, every goal Ronaldinho missed was available for public viewing. Even his exclusion from the World Cup squad was extensively analysed on social media.

If you were an aspiring sportsperson or a scientist, it would be reassuring to know that even successful people struggle and often fail.

Ankur Warikoo remembers his father crying when he didn’t clear the IIT entrance exam. After a year at college, Ankur tried again:

Didn’t make it, not even close. This time no one cried, not even me. Maybe I knew it all along.

After graduating, Ankur decided to pursue a master’s degree. Of the seven universities he applied to, Michigan State University was the only one that accepted him. Following his master’s, Ankur enrolled in a PhD programme. He soon dropped out and returned to India. Unsure of what to do next, Ankur joined the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

This is Ankur’s failure resume.

After his MBA, Ankur accepted a batch mate’s offer to be a co-founder in his company. A year later, he was fired. He says his friend did the right thing. Ankur and his wife then decided to start a food company but could not raise the capital to fund it.

In 2011, Ankur became the founding CEO of Groupon in India. Four years later, the company decided to exit the country. Ankur offered to buy Groupon’s business with capital he intended to raise. Of the 23 venture capitalists he pitched to, 22 rejected him. He manged the buyout only to lose Rs 110 million in the first month. While laying off 80 employees, Ankur cried and apologised to them. It was not their fault; he had failed them.

Attempting to raise funds again, Ankur approached 68 investors. One investor agreed, only to later withdraw the offer. The founders took a cut in salary, while Ankur managed on his credit cards. For his sister’s wedding, Ankur raised a loan by offering his parents’ home as collateral.

It was to get worse.

Ankur sold his wife’s jewellery to buy his son a bicycle. Seeing the birthday present, his son broke down. Ankur remembers that day: We broke down too. It was a very difficult moment to realize that you had gotten to this point where you didn’t even have money to keep your kids happy.

It took eight years for his new venture ‘’ to turn cash positive. Ankur eventually stepped down as CEO, with the other two founders taking over.

It was no different now: I had no money, no plan, no direction—nothing whatsoever. Exactly where I was 10 years back at 29.

Ankur is now a blogger on social media. In January 2022, he had 50 million views on YouTube. A motivational speaker and storyteller, Ankur likes to share the journey of his failures.

This is an extract from Mukesh Sud and Priyank Narayan's latest book, Leap Frog: Six Practices To Thrive At Work, published with Penguin Random House India.