The Glory of Success or Failure?

Is the following a photo of success or failure?

(The answer appears below the photo)

VC Osprey pic - 475

This photo I took captures the moment a split second after the Osprey failed in pursuit of its prey.

At that time, the Osprey had swooped down to grab an extremely large fish.

It succeeded in grabbing on to the fish with its talons, BUT the fish was too big, too strong, and too heavy for the Osprey to fly away with it.

In fact, the fish pulled the bird down into the water, submerging 90% of the bird’s body, and started to drown it.

The moment you see above is a split second after the bird decided to give up, let go of the fish, and fly up to live to fight another day.

In a truly glorious rise from failure, the Osprey strained to flap its water-drenched wings to pull itself out of harm’s way.

The reason you see so much water spray, which is very unusual for an Osprey, is precisely because the water had drenched the Osprey’s wings when it got pulled under.

Birds were designed to fly, not to swim. This Osprey got reminded of that lesson in this GLORIOUS moment — arguable much more glorious than if it had been successful.

Sometimes it is not how we handle success that defines us; it is how we handle “failure.”

For it is in recovering from failure that lessons are learned, “muscles” (physical and mental) are strengthened, and skills are honed for the next attempt.

Nobody successful in life or nature gets that way without learning from his or her “failures.”

When I look at the most glorious moments in my life and career, they are not the public moments of success. They have always been those private moments right after I’ve hit rock bottom.

In my case, it was a figurative rock bottom. In the case of the Osprey, it’s literal.

In both cases, recovering from failure is glorious (even if it feels absolutely miserable in the moment!).

There’s a second lesson here. And that is the value of setting ambitious goals and learning from the PURSUIT of them.

It would have been “safer” had the Osprey not attempted to pursue such an ambitious goal.

I would have had far fewer failures in my life and career had I not tried to aim high.

But that misses the point entirely.

When you aim high, even when you fail... or especially when you fail... you GROW and learn from the experience.

Failure is not the opposite of success. It is the pathway through which you succeed.

However, this is only true under one condition: you genuinely embrace the lesson failure gives you as a gift.

That’s only possible if you face failure head on (rather than hide from it) so you notice the gift, are humble enough to learn the lesson, and have the courage to try again.


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26 comments… add one
  • Vikram Sharma Apr 29, 2015, 9:05 am

    Thanks you Victor for this very inspiring message. Excellent choice of example i.e. Osprey to subtly communicate a very powerful message.

  • Ursula Mannix Apr 29, 2015, 9:38 am

    Have faced failure head on (rather than hiding from it) I noticed the gift, and am humble enough to learn the lesson (s), truly have the courage to try again.

    Thank you!

    Ursula Mannix

    • Victor Cheng Apr 29, 2015, 11:18 pm


      I acknowledge your courage. If you learn from your mistakes and never quit, you do succeed — only a matter of when and not if.


  • Frank Apr 29, 2015, 10:37 am

    Dear Victor Cheng:

    1. Whether ´t is nobler in the mind to suffer, the slings and arrows of outragous fortune or to take arms against a see of troubles (Hamlet)

    This came in my mind when I read your e-mail comment on your picture with the bird above the water. Stick to the large fish and get drowned or let him go and go yourself for a new venture. This is judging yourself to get the balance in the case you can afford the time searching for new engagements. This is true for me leaving a big company to return to family do the housekeeping.

    2. A ship in a harbour is safe but this is not what a ship´s been built for! (John Augustus Shedd)
    So if you are a proven consultant, sales guy or hunting bird, there is merely no other option as to take your arms and travel the world and the seven seas

    Thanks for the picture!


  • Jim Kubat Apr 29, 2015, 12:59 pm

    Victor, I appreciate this view of failure, and agree: failure is the pathway to success. This is positive, healthy and practical view of failure, since all human beings fail at something at some point. My comment, however, is that I wish management and co-workers looked at failure in this positive light. So often, through my career, failure (and not necessarily my failures) has been something that gets discussed in whispering sessions behind closed doors, or in performance reviews, rather than something to be celebrated as a learning experience that brings a person one step closer to succeeding the next time. In other words, this is a great theory, but it doesn’t take the sting or anxiety out of failure, which is what it should do.

    • Victor Cheng Apr 29, 2015, 11:23 pm


      Whether failure is embraced or avoided depends on the company and it’s culture. To over simplify, innovative startups tend to embrace failure, big slow ones do not.


      • Artem Boltyenkov May 1, 2015, 8:39 am

        I think failure need to be judged based on 2 factors. First, in my opinion tolerance to failure strongly depends on relationship between upside and downside. Second, tolerance to failure depends on how good the attempt you make fits your goal. Examples: I go and gamble my money in casino and lose them. Here upside was much smaller than downside. Therefore such failure is stupid. Another example – you want to be an engineer, but apply and fail to get a job at McKinsey. In this case it is not even a failure – you failed at something that would lead you away from your goal. A combination of two – you manage a McDonald’s restaurant business in an area for some investors. Suddenly you have an idea that consumers want to buy food over Internet, so you close your McDonald’s restaurants and spend all the proceeds to build up a hamburger online order and delivery startup which fails. Investor are mad at you because you got into project with upside smaller than downside and which drifts away from safe investment strategy they trusted you with. These are the main 2 reasons corporations are typically risk averse.

      • Artem Boltyenkov May 1, 2015, 8:52 am

        Failure also allows to think if what you are attempting to do is what you should attempt to do next time or try something else. In my opinion we are all goal-driven. But there are always different ways to reach a goal. Imagine you have a goal to become an entrepreneur. You can reach it my going to get an mba at an elite university, then get a job at McKinsey, then go to work for one of the ventures of rocketinternet. Or you can learn to code, work as a sw. Developer, and in parallel develop your startup. Different ways – lead to the same goal. But one path is better for some people, and another path for others. Failure is also a signal to try other way so reach the goal.

  • Vin Sathe Apr 29, 2015, 1:47 pm

    Thank you Victor. What a message !
    This is most compelling way to give message through picture and story.
    Most of us have fear of failure and lack conviction that failure is pathway to succeed.

    You are awesome writer and great communicator. Keep doing it for you and us.

    Thank you again.

    • Victor Cheng Apr 29, 2015, 11:25 pm



  • Inger Apr 29, 2015, 3:45 pm

    Hi Victor
    I’ve read your e-mails for the last year or so. Sometimes learning stuff I can use in my current job, sometimes using the info in your e-mails in my considerations about the future and a possible change in career. Today’s e-mail and the image of the Osprey touched me deeply. Maybe because it so elegantly showed me the importance of taking the challenge, learning from whatever failures we experience. But beyond all, have the courage to try. The picture is now on my wall to remind me to have the courage. Thanks
    – Inger

    • Victor Cheng Apr 29, 2015, 11:26 pm


      I’m glad. Good luck!


  • cassandra Apr 29, 2015, 5:54 pm

    Dear Mr Cheng
    I got your email seconds after I got a n unsuccessful mail for a 6 months graduate trainee program I participated in.. Your messaged lifted my spirit.. I felt like a failure because I put my best into this but I got disappointed.. Prior to this I’d been writing job tests and never got the jobs.. I’ll take your advice..I’m still trying together over the hurt. It won’t be easy but I’ll get over it as soon as possible so I can move on.. On work on my confidence level.
    Thank you Sir,

  • Desmond Apr 29, 2015, 9:07 pm

    It’s a process we go through in life. What separates the very successful from other people is the will to see through our failures as nothing but learning lessons in order to reach another goal. As I go through my own test of success’ and failures this is a great example of how my process is honing me into the success I will become.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Mike Apr 29, 2015, 9:11 pm


    I really look forward to your insightful emails. No matter what I may be going through they always seem to provide the right message and the right time. Sometimes I worry about the future because of the unknown and the unknown is associated with failure but after reading your email I will embrace the lessons and use them to position myself to be successful!

    Thank you!


  • Shirish Apr 30, 2015, 8:45 am

    Dear Victor,
    While your case interview tips and tools are so important and helpful from a focused, preparation perspective, it is messages like the above ones that have a more lasting effect – at least on me personally.
    It’s great that you were present with your camera at this above moment, took the effort to capture it, and then to share the story with it – thanks!
    Much of what I think in this regard has been said either in your story or the comments. One other thing that struck me though, is that for the Osprey (and the bird/animal kingdom in general), it’s a question of pure survival & existence, not luxury.
    From that perspective, what many of us humans – and current/aspiring consultants – face, is a relatively comfortable choice … whether to stay in the current role or to go for a new one. The story above was a good reminder to be humbly grateful for a life where we are not existentially threatened (think of the targeted fish)!

    • Victor Cheng Apr 30, 2015, 11:02 pm


      Good point. I’m guessing the fish learned something too!


  • Gloria Apr 30, 2015, 9:18 am

    Thank you so much, Victor. When I read your email yesterday, I didn’t realize how powerful your message was. But now I do..

    I’ve just found out that I didn’t pass bar (yes, just today), and yet, I don’t even have a single drop of tear coming out of me (honestly, I am totally surprised with myself right now). But I believe it’s because your message was embedded in my ‘heart’ somewhere that I’m keep telling my ‘head’,

    “I will face my failure head on (rather than hide from it), receive this gift, and have the courage to try again.”

    Thank you so much for the valuable life lesson at a perfect timing. You saved my day : )

    • Victor Cheng Apr 30, 2015, 11:02 pm


      Sorry you didn’t pass the bar this time around. Best wishes going forward. You definitely have the right attitude.

      Best wishes,

  • Alexey Apr 30, 2015, 10:34 am

    Hi there
    I want to thank you Victor for this post.Today I received rejection letter from one of PE firm I wanted to work for. Yerstaday I faced the same with the othe one. And finally to day my boss offered me higher salary but in a minute he changed his mind. I felt miserable but after reading your post I seemed feel recovered and ready to the next chance.But from now I do learn the mistakes first and then make any steps. Thanks again

    • Victor Cheng Apr 30, 2015, 11:01 pm


      There is success and there is feedback (instead of failure). Good luck.


  • Dean Apr 30, 2015, 3:17 pm

    Thanks, Victor. Your story puts failure in the proper perspective.

  • P_U May 4, 2015, 4:33 am

    Dear Victor,

    Your mail came at a very opportune moment. Facing one of those situations now. Love my job, hate my company. 1) After being promised a country head role for two years in a row, I have seen it slip through because my firm pulled out from the acquisition at the last moment. 2) Growth prospects getting stuck because of slow growth of the firm, personal differences with my current senior, 3) Huge challenges at home with my estranged father who needs to move to assisted living but refuses to do so, 4) And all complicated with differences with my spouse- six months into marriage and I wonder why I did it.

    I know I will pull through, have always grown to bigger things from situations like this. But at this moment, just feel stuck. Can’t sleep, can’t unwind. Everything seems to suck energy.

    Your mail came as a welcome change. Thank you.

  • Matt May 4, 2015, 5:12 pm

    Love the pic. Love the message.

    I think your spin is the positive (read: right) one.

    That said, I could just as easily see you telling me a story about appropriate goal setting, or managing expectations (e.g., the bird should have set realistic expectations, picked up a fish more reasonable in size [success!] and fed his family for a couple of days.

    I guess that’s why images are so powerful in the world of story telling, and authorial intent is often misconstrued as truth.

    Always appreciate the read. Keep ’em coming.


    • Victor Cheng May 28, 2015, 3:43 am

      Hi Matt,

      You are correct. A photo is a photo. The caption or interpretation of the photo’s significance is as you said subject to interpretation.

      The same is true for charts and slide titles in consulting power point slides. 🙂

      By the way, one reason to use visuals is its often easier for most people to remember the idea that was linked to the visual when the visual exists.


  • Jun. Xie May 16, 2015, 8:44 pm

    Dear Victor,
    Pretty good story. Thank you so much for the valuable lessons learned, I could no more agree with you that failure is a gift. I will receive this gift and face my failure head on, have the courage to try again and pursue new goal.

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