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TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson: Perseverance is the Key to Turning Failure Into Success

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TIAA’s CEO openly shares his thoughts on the importance of persistency and how it’s played a role in the success of his career.

By Roger Ferguson, TIAA President & CEO

I’ve always loved the quote “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal.” It contains two important truths about success: don’t become complacent when you have it, and don’t give up on it when you stumble.

History is full of examples of people who failed and then went on to experience great success. Bill Gates’ first business flopped. Oprah Winfrey was fired from one of her first television jobs. Their stories show that failure should never be the end of the story. If you keep your goals in sight and persevere, you can eventually reach them.

I’ve seen the importance of perseverance throughout my own career. After starting out as a lawyer, I decided to switch paths. I applied for a job at McKinsey and Co., even though I was not an obvious candidate, given my lack of business experience. I was promptly rejected – and with a form letter, no less. But I didn’t give up, because I knew that I could make a valuable contribution to the firm and its clients. I eventually managed to get an interview, and I made my case. After what felt like about 12 more rounds of interviews, I landed a position despite the atypical professional background that got me there.

I worked hard and performed well. However, as I got closer to being made a partner in the firm, I stumbled and made a mistake that nearly cost me my job. Again, I was determined to not give up. I took responsibility for the mistake, learned from it, redoubled my commitment, made some tough career decisions, and eventually ended up making partner.

I’ve seen the importance of perseverance in my personal life as well. I was a lousy swimmer for many years, but it’s a great way to get exercise and frankly, I’m not getting younger. One day, I decided to make a commitment to getting better at it – not just keeping my head above water. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy reading up on a topic that I want to learn more about. I found and read “Total Immersion” by Terry Laughlin with John Delves, took lessons, and started working on my skills. Slowly but surely, I got better. I’m now a steady, albeit slow, lap swimmer. I’m proud of how far I’ve come and it sure beats jogging.

We’re all human, so we’re going to face setbacks or make mistakes from time to time. The key is to keep moving forward toward your goals. If you approach your life with resilience and determination, you can turn any failure into success.

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