The CEO of Charles Schwab learned the biggest lesson of his career from failing a one-question exam in college

Walt BettingerJustin Sullivan / Getty ImagesWalt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab.

Failure is an essential part of life because we learn some of our most important lessons from it.

Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab, knows this from personal experience.

In a recent interview with Adam Bryant of The New York Times, Bettinger talked about one of the biggest career lessons he ever learned.

It was in a business strategy course his senior year of college, he tells Bryant.

Bettinger had maintained a 4.0 average all the way through and wanted to graduate with a perfect GPA. But it all came down to the final exam in that business course.

“I had spent many hours studying and memorising formulas to do calculations for the case studies,” he recalls. “The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, he said, ‘Go ahead and turn it over.’ Both sides were blank.”

Next, the professor said: “I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”

“That had a powerful impact,” Bettinger tells Bryant. “It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the ‘B’ I deserved.

“Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name. I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.”

Bettinger says that experience was a great reminder of what really matters in life, “and that you should never lose sight of people who do the real work.”

Read the full New York Times interview here.

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