Failure: Foe or Friend?
Learning how to fail successfully might help you become more successful.
What feelings does that word conjure up? Do you get a knot in your stomach? Do you want to run away from the whole topic? Do you stick to things that are safe for you, so you can avoid failure?
The truth is that if you haven’t failed yet, you’re probably not taking risks. And while life without risks is comfortable, you’re not going to make your dreams come true by staying in your cushy comfort zone.
In our society, failure is considered bad, shameful and something you want to avoid; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary® defines failure as “lack of success; a falling short.” But as motivational speaker Jay Shetty said in a recent Huffington Post public service announcement video, this definition doesn’t respect the process, the learning, the struggle—and the resulting growth that occurs from this process.
We can name many well-known people today who experienced failure along the way to success. For example:
- Walt Disney’s first company went bankrupt.
- Beatrix Potter self-published her first work, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, after getting several rejections from publishers.
- J.K. Rowling got one rejection after another from publishers for Harry Potter.
- As a high-school sophomore, Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity basketball team.
In fact, it’s difficult to find people who have been successful at their work who have not failed at least once in their lives—and for some, t’s been many times.
Take the Shark Tank TV show’s billionaire investor, Marc Cuban. He’s had his fair share of failure, and he sees that misfortune as just part of the success equation. It’s an equation that Todd Durkin, MA—owner of Fitness Quest 10 and Todd Durkin Enterprises and author of The IMPACT Body Plan—also knows quite well.
In 2002, Durkin hired a general manager to oversee the operations and accounts receivable at Fitness Quest 10. “[This GM] did not love ‘talking money’ and did not like confrontation,” explains Durkin. “I was so busy training clients and doing what I love that I neglected to keep my eyes on the finances. We ended up in a heap of trouble, as we had dozens of clients who were way overdue in paying for their training packages.”
The heap of trouble included about 20 clients owing an average of $1,800 each. “Fortunately, we recovered about 90% of the revenue, and we lost only three people during that stressful time. It was one of my greatest leadership blunders and lessons. We have massively strengthened our systems since then, and we now run a very tight ship.”
Many products on the market were not the prototype of the final product, because the originals just didn’t work. “The item that I currently have online was not the first version,” explains John Turner, founder and CEO of QuietKit, guided meditations for beginners.
Turner advises entrepreneurs to take a step back and look at the big picture. “One thing that people need to understand when talking about failure is [that they should not] look at it in absolute or binary terms.” Rather, he notes, “Mini or micro failures are what’s needed to reach anything worth doing. So in that sense, failure is always a part of trying. But I think sometimes we need to acknowledge and iterate that trying new things is worth the risk, even if failure might seem to be, at first, the only result.”
And, of course, “Sometimes failure forces a business to take a different direction,” acknowledges Rebecca Goulet, co-founder of Nimbleback, manufacturer of The Beam™.
Goulet explains that if the Nimbleback team had allowed customer complaints to derail them, they wouldn’t have come up with a softer version of The Beam. “Another person might have perceived a customer complaint or a lost sale as a failure. In that moment, we may have failed at selling someone The Beam, but we were also learning and gathering information to grow our business. Failing is only failing when you don’t learn from it.”
And it’s this aspect of seeing failure as feedback that propels entrepreneurs toward success—something Mike Veny, a leading mental-health speaker and the owner of Unleash Your Groove™, refers to as “chasing failure.”
“Chasing failure isn’t about looking to lose in a game or in life,” Veny explains. “It’s about trying your best without fear of failure. It’s about getting excited when you fail, because there is a great lesson to be learned.”
Veny has personal experience with failure. “I owned a business that failed, and I had to file for bankruptcy 11 years ago. It was painful and embarrassing, and it hurt my ego. I didn’t even have the money to pay for the bankruptcy, so I had to go on a payment plan with the court to pay $200 over 3 months.”
But he didn’t allow this to hold him down. “The pain taught me humility and motivated me to focus on educating myself to become the best entrepreneur that I could be. I truly believe that entrepreneurs need failures, obstacles and setbacks in order to succeed. Steel doesn’t get sharpened unless it’s hammered.”
So If Failure Is Actually a Good Thing . . . Why Is It Perceived as Bad?
“Failure has a negative connotation for many, because it is viewed as a finality, a dead end, a personal deficiency,” states Mark Stevens, author of Your Marketing Sucks and CEO of MSCO, a management and marketing firm in Rye Brook, New York.
Stevens, however, views failure as simply a speed bump. “I call it a ‘speed bump’ precisely because that’s how the successful person views it—not as a finality or an end, but as the launch pad for a new and better beginning.”
Bill Sanders, principal and senior consultant at Roebling Strauss, a digital project and management consultancy in Clayton, California, feels that much of our society’s view of failure comes from our education system. “Tests are exams on what we know and how well we can do a certain thing,” he explains. “The goal is to ‘get it right,’ so we begin framing our world as right versus wrong. If you are right, you gain status and respect and you’re labeled as ‘smart.’ If you get it wrong, you are labeled as ‘stupid’ [and as a failure].”
“As children, most of us are taught to go after ‘wins,’” adds Veny. “The victory of a win is celebrated with energy and enthusiasm. Observe any youth sports game being played, and you will see this in action. Even in this day and age of ‘everybody is a winner,’ no one really wants to be the loser.”
Turner agrees. “I think the negative view of failure comes from how much people love the idea of ‘the winner.’ It also doesn’t help that many people don’t talk about the process they went through in terms of how it actually happened. It’s more compelling to say “Mark Zuckerberg had an idea in his college dorm room, and it took off from there” than it is to talk about all of the executive team turnover, the number of times they hit flat or negative growth, or how often they were dismissed as being MySpace® but not as ‘cool.’”
Turn That Failure Frown Upside Down
Greg Chambers, president of Chambers Pivot Industries, a sales and marketing consulting agency in Omaha, Nebraska, suggests that you not allow failure to define you. “When failure is used to describe an action rather than a state of being, it puts a more positive connotation on it.”
For instance, rather than taking on “I am a failure,” reframe the thought as “That idea failed, but we learned, X, Y and Z.”
“It takes failing over and over again to finally see the beauty in it. So much goodness comes out of failed ventures,” believes Jen Hansard, co-founder of Simple Green Smoothies, who experienced failure while living her “rags-to-riches” story. “In my experience, in every failure, the front door closes and a second-floor window opens. If you have the courage to get off the ground, look up high and find a way to climb through that window, a new adventure awaits.”
Durkin concludes that true success really lies in being significant. “Success can be dangerous,” he declares. “To me, significance is even more important. Did I make a difference in someone’s life today? After all, life is short and we only have so much time to make a difference. It’s best if you can be both successful and significant.”
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