Jun 042010
Byzantium 1081 by Timwi

Failure is often misunderstood and avoided. I should know. Growing up in a competitive Asian society has taught me to pursue success while avoiding failure. Ironically, this is a recipe for mediocrity. In reality, failure is a part of life and a crucial part of success. Without failure, there can be no lasting success. We cannot and should not avoid failure because it has much to teach us. For those who are able to profit from the benefits of failure, success is only a matter of time.

Alexios Komnenos and the Norman Invasion

In 1081, two men fought for control over the Byzantine Empire which was on the verge of collapse. The aggressor was the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard. Robert was a brilliant leader with boundless energy and resourcefulness. Through his own efforts, he became master of Sicily and Southern Italy. Now at the age of 66 when most people retired, Robert aimed to become Byzantine emperor.

The man who stood in his way was the newly crowned emperor Alexios Komnenos. Aged 24, he was an able general who remained undefeated in the empire. Although he had seized the throne, his subjects looked to him to save them. Given time, Alexios would have restored the empire to its former strength and glory. But he had no such luxury. Only a month after his coronation, Alexios had to face the Norman invasion from the west. Meanwhile, the Seljuk Turks had conquered most of his eastern domains in Asia Minor.

Alexios knew that he could not fight on both fronts at the same time. Viewing Asia Minor as lost; he chose to focus on stopping the Norman invasion. But in his first battle with the Normans, Alexios and the Byzantine army suffered a grave defeat at the hands of Robert Guiscard. There were significant casualties; amongst them the elite Byzantine troops. This defeat damaged the prestige of the emperor causing many cities to surrender to the Normans without a fight.

The situation was critical. Robert Guiscard seemed unstoppable. With each success, morale in the Norman army increased, making them harder to beat. Soon Robert would attempt to take Constantinople; the imperial capital. If it fell, the empire would have a new emperor. Meanwhile Alexios struggled with the worst defeat of his career. Because of his loss he no longer appeared invincible. Worse still, he was on the verge of losing his empire.

But the young emperor refused to give up. Instead he used the lessons he learned from his defeat to fight back. Firstly, he began raising a new army to stop the Normans. Alexios made sure to train and discipline them to fight the Normans effectively. Secondly, he was aware that he did not have the strength to defeat the Normans by himself. So he offered Robert’s enemies huge sums of money to attack his Italian domains. This strategy worked. Robert left quickly for Italy as soon as he learned that his Italian domains were in peril. In the meantime, command of the invasion fell to his son Bohemund.

Like his father, Bohemund was a skilful leader who managed to deal a few defeats to Alexios’s newly raised army. But Alexios fought on. With each defeat, he and his men gained experience. With each defeat, Alexios refined his tactics. At long last, the turning point came when Alexios beat the Normans for the first time through a ruse. By now, Alexios had a keen understanding of his foes. He quickly followed up his win by offering huge bribes to the homesick and dispirited Normans to desert and return home. It was a success; many Normans came forward and accepted his bribes. Soon Bohemund found himself without an army. With the Normans out of the way, Alexios finally regained control of Greece

Alexios I Komnenos by Ilmari Karonen

The Benefits of Failure

Despite the odds against him, Alexios managed to prevail in the end. But his success only came about because he learned from his many failures. Like Alexios, we too can profit from our failures. The following are some of the benefits that failure brings.


From his first defeat at the hands of Robert Guiscard, Alexios gained experience about the enemy and their tactics. He also noted the lack of discipline amongst his troops which led to his defeat. As he raised his new army, Alexios disciplined and drilled his troops in tactics designed to defeat the Normans. But success did not come quickly. Undaunted, Alexios carried on learning from his failures. He kept on refining his tactics until his army could do what he wanted it to; defeat the Normans.

With each and every failure comes experience and growth. You learn what works and what doesn’t. You know the results that particular actions will bring. By recognizing that failure is the result of ineffective actions, you can adjust your actions until you get the desired results. When you finally succeed, you will have the most effective and efficient means of doing something well.


Alexios’s earlier failures made him realize that a bitter fight to the end was not in his best interests. Every battle with the Normans carried the risk of a defeat he might not recover from. So in the end, he won through a ruse and paid the enemy to go home. Although there was little glory, Alexios was wise enough not to let this bother him. What mattered was the peace he restored to his lands.

Making the right decisions in the face of adversity is not easy. But with the experience you gain from failure comes wisdom. With this wisdom you will be able to foresee how events are likely to play out before they happen. You will know the possible consequences of each action which you make or do not make. As a result you will learn to differentiate between short-term gains and a more lasting benefit. Guided by your wisdom, you will find your way to success.


The Normans were fearsome warriors led by skilful leaders. Alexios learned the hard way that he could not hope to beat them through brute force alone. Learning from his mistakes, Alexios used trickery and bribes to destroy the Normans. In this manner, he kept his casualties low while winning the enemy at the same time.

Failure forces us to be creative to succeed. Most of us are content to do things in the conventional way. We preferred the tried and true to the untested. But when the tried and true fails, we have no other option but to think out of the box. Forced to be creative, we may actually find better and more efficient ways of attaining success. This creativity has brought about many breakthroughs for humanity which would not have been possible without failure.


Alexios’s defeats at the hands of the Normans taught him to endure hardships. He knew that success and failure were part of life and treated them as such. While defeats may have crippled other leaders, Alexios merely shrugged them off and worked on his next comeback. Due to his endurance, Alexios lasted long enough to win the war.

Anyone who has failed in life will know that failure is not easy to bear. But our view of failure is usually worse than the actual failure itself. With the right mindset, failure actually builds endurance. The first failure may be tough, but if we accept failure as a natural part of the learning process, subsequent failures become easier to handle. Only by bearing failures and learning from them can we hope to succeed.

-Keeps You Sharp

Alexios’s many defeats at the hands of the Normans forced him to stay sharp. He knew first hand how tough they were on the battlefield. Taking no chances, Alexios went all out and used every trick in his arsenal to win the war. He waited patiently for his moment and when it came, he exploited it to the fullest. On the other hand, each victory only served to make the Normans lax and complacent. Soon they began to underestimate the enemy which made their defeat irreversible.

Success can go to your head making you lax and complacent and set you up for a hard fall. Failure on the other hand, keeps you on your toes. It forces you to stay alert for any opportunities that you can use to turn things around. It also forces you to stay sharp and to improve until you succeed. By continually testing and refining your methods, failure guides you towards success.

-Helps You to Surpass Your Limits

His many losses to the Normans forced Alexios to grow. Because Robert and Bohemund were such brilliant leaders, Alexios had to surpass his limits to beat them. For their sake, he had to bring his strategies and tactics to a whole new level. Only by doing so did he manage to scrap out his big win over the Normans. After this war, he would operate on a whole new level as emperor.

Failure forces you to surpass your limits. When your standard mode of operation fails to overcome a challenge, there is only one thing to do; improve. You have to elevate your whole performance to triumph against the odds. You have to grow and gain new skills to manage the situation. By rising to the challenge and doing so, you become more capable because you pushed yourself to a whole new level.

Taking Action

There is much to be gained from failure. But being aware of its benefits and knowing how to overcome failure are two different things. The next logical step would be to find out how to overcome failure.

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