Why Failure Is Good?

Your deepest pain is your greatest gift if you learn how to use it. ‬

Cao Cao (155 – 15 March 220), courtesy name Mengde, was a warlord and the penultimate Chancellor of the Eastern Han dynasty who rose to great power in the final years of the dynasty.

Cao Cao’s speech after suffering defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs.

A military commander is like a physician. When a physician treats more and more patients, his medical skills become better and better. In other words, when more people die from failed treatments, the physician’s skills become better. If a military commander does not taste defeat every now and then, how will he know how to fight a victorious battle?

In this world, there is no such thing as an ever-victorious commander. There are only commanders who do not give up after a defeat, who grow stronger from experience, and who eventually emerge as victors.

Our army of 830,000 men embarked on a conquest in the south, but was defeated by Sun Quan and Liu Bei with just about 60,000 men. Why? I think the most fundamental reason was that in recent years we have won too many battles. The army became arrogant, the generals lazy, the civil officials indolent and the military officers frivolous. We – especially I – became conceited and underestimated the enemy. I could not see through even a simple battered-body ruse. This resulted in the success of Wu’s fire attack.

So, you see, I think it was time for us to taste the bitterness of defeat. Failure is a good thing. Failure teaches us how to succeed. Failure teaches us how we can achieve victory. Failure teaches us how we can conquer the world. If a person wants to succeed, he must know when to hold on and when to let go. It is the same with warfare. One must be able to win and also be able to lose.

Although we tasted a bitter defeat at Red Cliff, our foundations remain unshaken. Of the whole empire, we still have in our hands the four provinces of Qing, You, Bing and Ji. Our cities, armies, population, and tax revenue are still many times those of Sun Quan’s and Liu Bei’s. The imperial court is still in Xuchang, and is still in our hands.

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