A few years ago, I was talking about success and failure at a start-up event. The convention is to end by wishing the assembled entrepreneurs great success, which, honestly, no one notices because it’s a bit like asking “How are you doing?” and not waiting for an answer. Instead, I started by wishing the audience lots of failures. After the initial surprise, I managed to get their undivided attention and we had a wonderful discussion on the following points.

“Behind every successful man there is a woman” has been a popular saying for years. Today’s politically correct version is: “Behind every successful woman there is a man”.

While researching for my book Failing to Succeed, I spent quite some time thinking about failing and succeeding, and I think the correct saying should be: “Behind every successful person there are many failures”.

I believe the intrinsic value of highly successful people is proportional to the number of people who fail at reaching such astronomical heights.

Imagine a world where anyone can bat like Sachin Tendulkar, compose music like Ilayaraaja, play tennis like Roger Federer, make movies like Steven Spielberg, paint like Michelangelo, write fiction like RK Narayan, or attain superstardom like Amitabh Bachchan. That world would be quite boring because there would be no special value for unique talents and skills. The reason we are crazy about these successful people is because there are millions working hard to emulate them but fail.

It is said that success and failure are two sides of a coin. I have a different analogy.

I think success and failure are like the numerator and denominator of an inversely proportional fraction. The numerators are the successes and the denominators are the failures. The higher the denominator, the lower is the value of the fraction, thus enhancing the value of the success.

The more the failures, the higher is the value of the successful people. In other words, if no one failed, we wouldn’t attach much value to successful folks.

A large percentage of start-ups fail and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Entrepreneurs must learn from failures, for sure; but contrary to popular opinion, even successes can teach us. Unfortunately, few make the effort to learn from success.

It’s as important to know why we succeeded as asking why we failed. What varies is how much we can learn from them. Like a good friend pointed out once: “Success is a subject. Failure is the entire course curriculum.”

(The writer is a serial entrepreneur and best-selling author of the book ‘Failing to Succeed’; posts on X @vaitheek)