Failure – what does it mean to you?
Failure isn’t welcome to most of us – we’d rather avoid it. It looks to us like falling on our faces – we may experience it as embarrassing, humiliating or shaming. We might feel stupid and think others will judge us for it. Others may do exactly that and even joke about us to our peers. We might think the failure is going on our scorecard of life, and that hurts. We may feel somehow “less than” if we fail. We might also lose an opportunity due to a failure and blame ourselves, or worse, others.
For me these days though, failure means I’m showing up, doing the work, learning. I’m persisting until I find out what I need to do to achieve my goal. Failure is human, an unavoidable part of the process and to me it looks like progress. I deserve at least 100 fails if that’s what gets me to a win. Sometimes I count them for a lark. Nothing new was ever invented without constant failure. We have to be able to envision success before we can build it, and at first, we don’t know how to do that.
Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive.” As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Wanting to fight failure
Often, we work from the assumption that life should be better than it is. We want to have a good life, free from suffering, and we are often prepared to go to great lengths to try to make it so. We try to conquer negativity by sheer force of will – by adding more negativity – so we can live in a world where everything is OK. That’s our purpose – to be the best we can be – right? That’s the American dream…
The ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.
I love to have aspirations and goals, but I can’t succeed by banishing failure. The human condition includes all emotions and experiences, and it’s not possible to cherry pick only the ‘good’ ones. Sometimes we’ll feel good, sometime bad. Sometimes we will succeed, sometimes not. Some of our enterprises will go well, others fall flat. Much of this is outside our control and when we seek to control it, we do more harm than good. The fact is, we don’t own our life circumstances. Things happen. The best way to manage our reality is to face it honestly with a calm sense of acceptance. If we can bring love and compassion to your experience, we can uplift any situation. So, yes, we strive to be the best people we can be, but that doesn’t mean pushing away the bits of life we don’t like.
My exit from my last startup job is a good example. My remit was to build the minimum viable product (MVP), then the prototype to develop out in to a product. The tech team were busy building the bones of the MVP, but demand often shifted back to producing marketing materials instead. I became increasingly distressed at being unable to do my assigned job, but stuck with it, adjusting expectations as I went. However, to cut a long story short I began to see that the blocker was outside of my control.
The fallout of failure
I didn’t want to be seen as a failure at work. That doesn’t often happen to me. I didn’t want to be loser, it flew in the face of my professional image. I worked harder, tried different approaches, negotiated, presented, talked. I tried to get people onside and manufacture a way through. Nothing.
Finally, I realised I was done. It became clear why it would never be possible to produce the MVP and I walked away, from probably the single biggest professional failure of my life. The stress it caused me was off the charts. I can usually find solutions – what the hell was wrong? I took it as a personal fail and started to question my own worth. It was ugly. Of course, it was also completely un-necessary. The smallest analysis of the facts would have displayed the truth, that I had done everything in my power. Startups are notoriously complex games of discovery and mistakes, dynamics and chance – fraught with stress and very prone to failure.
How to fail your way to success
Building my new business, I have learned a completely different approach, that I’ve mentioned above. Failure is a badge I proudly wear now. I’m happy to admit that as an entrepreneur, I fail all the time. Every day. Experiments are how I hone my skills, on top of conventional learning and the advice of mentors. There’s a LOT I don’t know, but here’s one thing I do know – once I commit absolutely to achieving my goal, it’s only a matter of time before I succeed.
The way failure works for me now is easily demonstrated by Facebook ads. Did you roll your eyes when I said that? I was a novice with them when I started my business and there is a LOT to know – not just about branding, marketing, messaging and copywriting, but about how consumers respond to the details of adverts – titles, images, videos and copy. It’s a delicate balance. I studied first with Frank Kern, who happily surprises himself with new discoveries all the time. Even after I drew wisdom from Frank and many other industry leaders, I still couldn’t produce a Facebook ad that was worth a cuss. It took months of experimentation to find a formula that worked for me. I knew I would succeed though, and that the learning would give me very valuable insights in to my business and clients.
I choose to make progress rather than be “right” or “perfect”. I choose to honour my calling and find my way through. Paradoxically, allowing failure builds my confidence and resilience. I fail better. To the extent that I’m willing to be uncomfortable and fail, I will succeed.
Failure is a wonderful thing. I wish you many happy productive fails.