Rocky and the Power of Failure

(Spoilers ahead)

The best movies in the “Rocky” franchise are not concerned with winning or losing, but about drive, ability and performance. Rocky may be synonymous with Eye-of-The-Tiger-themed training montages and “Yo! Adrian!” catchphrases, but at their core, the best Rocky films are deeply personal stories of perseverance.

In the original “Rocky,” the titular hero isn’t interested in whether he can actually beat heavyweight champion Apollo Creed — winning is a secondary consideration. Rather, as he confesses one night to Adrian, Rocky needs to know whether he has it within him to “go the distance.” That is, to go 15 rounds with Apollo without getting knocked out or otherwise having the fight stopped. That’s where Rocky’s self-worth lies, and how he’ll prove to everyone that’s he’s more than just a “bum,” to use the film’s parlance.

Rocky II’s a good movie, too, but it doesn’t have the emotional resonance as the first film. Rocky III-V continued with diminished returns. It’s worth noting that, especially in the case of III and IV, the franchise becomes more invested with whether Rocky can beat the Big Bad at the end — whether that’s Mr. T or Dolph Lungren. Those films are preoccupied more with man vs man than man vs self. To me, that’s what makes the sequels a whole lot less interesting, (even despite the appearance of a young Hulk Hogan in III or a musical spot by James Brown in IV).

The franchise finds its footing again with “Rocky Balboa” (2006) and the most excellent “Creed” (2015). Like the original, the latest entries in the series are less about a hero fighting a villain and but rather a hero fighting for himself.

Spoiler ahead: The best Rocky films (“Rocky,” “Rocky Balboa” and “Creed”) are the ones where Rocky loses.

So why am I writing about Rocky? Because there’s a good chance your business is going to fail. The small business survival rate, after six years, falls to just 40 percent

There’s numerous reasons why businesses fail, and they’re not all in our control. Economics both macro and micro, disasters natural and man-made and emerging technologies all contribute to uncertainty. We all lose sometimes.

When we first meet Rocky, he’s a part-time “ham and egger” fighting in boxing clubs. He’s alone except for his pet turtles, making money working for a loan shark. His best days are far enough behind him that when challenged to fight champion Apollo Creed as a lark, he initially declines. Rocky fails to beat Apollo Creed, but by at least giving it a shot, he ends the film in a much better place. He found his self-worth in his quest to go the distance. He becomes a legitimate athlete.

He has Adrian.

Whether in business or in life, we mustn’t shirk a challenge.

That “Rocky” got made at all is somewhat of a minor miracle, and is a testament to the tenacity of writer and star Sylvester Stallone. Stallone recalled how, after he finally sold the script, the studio was reluctant to let him star. A relative unknown, Stallone pushed until he got the movie made his way — even turning down a $350,000 offer for the script without him starring. “Rocky” went on to win Best Picture, launched a franchise and created an iconic character.

Rocky teaches us that success doesn’t always mean we win, or that we are considered the best in our field. Sometimes success means going the distance and defying expectations of others or of ourselves.

It’s one of life’s paradoxes that in losing, sometimes we win.

For Further Reading

From Startup Dope: 5 Life Lessons Rocky Balboa taught us

From People.com: 10 Life Lessons We Can Learn from Rocky Balboa

From Brightscope.com: Eye of the Tiger – What Rocky Taught Me About Life and Business

You’re the Boss (New York Times): What “Rocky” Teaches Entrepreneurs

John Swinconeck