You can say what you want about Bill Gates, but it would be hard to argue that he hasn’t experienced success. He’s one of the wealthiest people on earth, having co-founded one of the world’s most valuable companies. He now spends his time giving away all of that money to causes like eradicating polio. His is not a bad resume. 

A lot of that accomplishment comes from a simple lesson Bill Gates learned early on in his life. I think it’s worth looking at, especially since it’s something many people take a lifetime to learn, if they ever do at all.

Most of us assume that it is, which means everything that isn’t success must be failure. But the opposite of success isn’t failure. Or, it doesn’t have to be. And, that’s a distinction that can make all the difference. Unfortunately, it’s one that many people never learn to make.

Most people measure success by whatever the equivalent is in their job of shooting an arrow and hitting the center of the target. There’s very little margin for error: you either hit it or you didn’t. If that’s the case, everything else is a failure. That belief is often what makes us afraid to try, because success is narrowly defined as only the best possible outcome. 

In most cases, though, success is incremental. You try something and it works, you take a step forward. You try something else, and it doesn’t work, so you learn something and look for more things like the first attempt. Eventually, you get to wherever you were headed.

This brings up another reason success isn’t binary: in many cases, it’s impossible to understand the best possible outcome. In fact, there are a lot of things that don’t qualify as a “success,” but shouldn’t be defined as failure either.

Take Microsoft, for example. There was no way to know when Bill Gates and Paul Allen set out to start a software company that it would become what it is today. Many of the factors that contributed to Microsoft being one of the largest companies and most valuable in the world didn’t even exist back then.

On the other hand, dropping out of college, which Gates did after two years, could easily have been seen as a failure. Except, it still moved Gates closer to where he was headed, even if it was hard to see at the time.

Microsoft wasn’t even the first venture founded by Gates and Allen. The pair first started a company called Traf-O-Data, which created reports based on studying data from traffic counters. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this successful business, it’s because it wasn’t. But it led the pair to launch a company that would go on to be one of the most successful ever. 

Looking back, years later, Gates would say “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

That’s a powerful lesson, but it’s one that many of us have a hard time learning. There are very few–if any–overnight successes. There are also, it turns out, very few overnight failures. Understanding that is just as important.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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