Using Failure to Succeed

Are you afraid of failing? If you’re like most people, the answer is a resounding “yes”. Failure can lead to financial ruin, a horrible life, low self-esteem….

But only if you let it. Today lets talk about Fear, Failure, Tenacity, and Success. Don’t worry; this doesn’t end in a sales pitch for a seminar or a book or anything. I won’t be asking for money at any point. I just want to share an idea that’s been building in my head ever since I started on the path to owning my own business in early 2013. Maybe you can take away something to help you in your dreams going forward.

What is Fear?

Fear is defined as:

noun; an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

This definition implies that we feel fear when we are concerned that something – an object, place, person, animal, thing, or situation – may cause us pain, put us in a dangerous position, or is perceived as a threat. Fear, then, should only really be a response to imminent danger to life and limb, a reaction to someone pointing a gun at your head or a wolf coming through your front door. Fear is supposed to preserve life.

But is that all it does? Maybe, back in the early days when fear of being eaten by a wolf was the biggest concern, our fear response acted the way it’s supposed to. But in today’s world, our culture and educational system have instilled in us all new reasons to be afraid. We feel fear, in small and large quantities, with many more situation than just threats to our lives. Fear of public speaking, fear of losing our jobs, fear of strangers, fear of gaining weight, and fear of getting a wrong answer, to name just a few.

But these new fears do us a disservice. Whereas being hit with the fight or flight response when our hypothetical wolf shows up is completely valid and life-affirming, that response doesn’t do us much good when it comes to pursuing our career goals or taking on a new business opportunity. In these cases, fear is much more often Paralyzing, than Galvanizing.

We can’t address all the wayward fears we experience in this article, but we can address the one that I think is having the biggest negative impact on our lives: Fear of Failure.

Why are we so afraid of Failure?

Most of us have been conditioned to think that failing at something makes you less of a person. Standardized tests, classes that look only at memorized knowledge, and an increased focus on “Getting the Right Answer” in the educational system has made failure a taboo subject. Tests can be passed by memorization of facts, and those facts can be forgotten almost immediately. Don’t understand the concept? Who cares! You got the right answer and that’s what matters. In fact, being Right and Doing The Right Thing are all that matters.

So, failure becomes a taboo, and failing becomes a fear.

And of course, since failure is taboo, something we want to avoid at all costs, it means that Failing at Something has been drilled into our psyches as being Failure of the Self. We forget how to handle it in a constructive manner. Here’s a Thomas Edison quote for you (and it’s not the one about 10,000 failed light bulbs. Good guess!):

Failure is really a matter of conceit. People don’t work hard because, in their conceit, they imagine they’ll succeed without ever making an effort. Most people believe that they’ll wake up some day and find themselves rich. Actually, they’ve got it half right, because eventually they do wake up.

People are afraid to fail, afraid to even consider failing, because their Ego can’t take it. They have learned that Success is Success and Failure is Failure, and never the twain shall meet. We learn to fear failure, and then we forget how to use it.

Why Failure is a Good Thing for Learning

Here are some hard realities for most people to accept:

  • Failure is the best way to build character.
  • Failure is the best way to truly understand a concept.
  • Failure is the best way to pursue your dreams.
  • It helps you think better, learn new skills, and become a stronger person.

Failure is fantastically useful!

The Edison quote you probably expected is an example of this. He said that he didn’t fail to create a light bulb, he simply found 10,000 ways that didn’t work. This thinking is the only way to invent something new, to develop a new idea. You need to see each “failure” as a step away from the things you don’t want to do, and a step towards the thing you want to accomplish. Ideas that spring forth from the mind of their creator fully formed and without having gone through extensive thought, testing, and revision are so rare that I don’t even have an example (and I doubt you do either). Great ideas come from bad ideas that fail, change, fail again, change, fail again, and change some more until they’re good ideas.

This is explicitly true in business, and if you own a small business you know exactly what I mean: No plan survives contact with the enemy. In business this means that your business plan, your goals, your budget, your everything is pretty much variable until you start doing business. Actually that quote is much more extensive than most people know, because the well-known version is a paraphrasing. Here’s the full version which I think provides even more insight:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon’s saying: “I have never had a plan of operations.”

Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

~Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian General

Moltke makes it evident that he believes humans to be capable only of so much foresight and planning, and for that reason we need to be prepared to Adapt to changing situations without being too afraid to do so. If that’s not business acumen, I don’t know what is!

Outside of inventing something awesome and starting a small business, the idea that failure (or things just not going how you expected) is critical in skill development. When you do something for the first time – drawing, programming, lifting weights, etc. – you probably screw it up at least a little bit. Some things you’ll be worse at than others, and sometimes you’ll find latent natural talent. Regardless, you didn’t do it perfectly the first time you tried it. Essentially, you failed to some degree.

But who cares? Do you think Vincent van Gogh, considered one of the greatest painters in the 20th century, picked up a brush one day and was suddenly a master painter? Sure, he might have started with a good eye for color or proportion, but the only way he became as great as he did was from painting. A lot. He wasn’t a serious artist until he was almost 30, and his early learning was spent copying other artists. If someone told you they spent all their time copying other paintings, would you take them seriously? Or would you think them a failure? (Van Gogh source)

What does it mean to be Tenacious?

Fail. Try again. Repeat until you succeed. This is the heart Tenacity. There is a Japanese proverb of which I am rather fond:

Fall seven times, Stand up eight

As soon as you change how you think about failure, you have to address how you deal with it. Here’s the easiest process I can share, and this is exactly how I deal with things when they don’t go as expected:

  1. Review what I tried
  2. Identify 1-2 things I can change that I think will have a better outcome
  3. Try again
  4. Repeat until it works

Sometimes this means changing the Approach to the idea or skill. For example the first dozen times I tried to do a deadlift I was awful at them and I felt horrible afterwards, even at low weights. I determined that I was approaching the skill from the wrong angle: I focusing on my legs and back, but what I needed to do was focus on my hips. That change made everything “click” and I’ve been improving my performance steadily for over a year.

In other cases, you might need to change the Idea Itself in a simple or fundamental way. Not every idea is Golden, and you need to be open to the possibility that your idea has room for improvement. In some cases this could be very simple. Here’s two examples:

Morton Salt

I bet you have this in your house right now, and have been buying it since you started buying salt. Round container, little girl with an umbrella, and available since 1848. It’s what we think about when we think “I need some salt”. What if I told you that when they started, they made okay sales and most people just bought salt out of barrel at the store? The only thing Morton offered was prepackaging, which most people didn’t care about. They did okay, but not great. So what did they do? They added one cheap ingredient, costing about $1 per 1000 pounds of salt: iodine. At the time, goiter was a big thing in the U.S., and the Swiss found that adding iodine to the diet helped curtail instances of goiter. BAM! Now Morton salt has a beneficial impact on one of the largest health issues in the country. Cue trumpets and cash flow. They were valued at over $1 billion back in 2002. All from a simple change that cost them very little, and for which they didn’t even raise prices.

Old Spice

Before 2010, Old Spice was basically “your grandfather’s deodorant”. Sure, it was doing well enough, but the image was very particular. I have vivid memories of turning down Old Spice deodorant because I didn’t want to smell like an old man. But then in 2010 something happened: Isaiah Mustafa became their spokesman in one of the most well-known ad campaigns in the last decade: “Smell Like a Man”. Almost everyone has seen him juggling chainsaws while wearing 8 Olympic Gold Medals, going head-to-head against Fabio as a new sex symbol (and winning), and telling women to make sure their husbands smell like a real man (“Look at your husband, now look at me, now look at your husband..”). While sales may not have skyrocketed, they were successful in reinventing their image, which helps ensure continuity as time goes on.

That may have seemed like a non sequitur, but lets consider for a moment what would have happened if the people behind these changes had been afraid to fail. Morton would have just kept producing salt the way they were until some other company added iodine and Carpe‘d that Diem instead. Old Spice would have missed out on viral marketing that, at first glance, seems ridiculous, but has made them a house-hold name in a brand new generation. Don’t let fear paralyze you.

Defining and Working Towards Success

So now that you’ve re-imagined the ideas of fear and failure in your mind, and you’ve figured out how to deal with it in your endeavors, the only thing left is to figure out what Success really means for you. What do you want? What do you need to accomplish? What will truly make you feel like a more accomplished or complete person? Where do you want to be in 5 or 10 years?

Define goals, define what it means to be successful for you, and then work out a plan from where you are now to where you want to be. This is going to be different for every person. Some people just want a steady job in an industry they enjoy where the company is run by someone else, and they can just do what they love. Maybe you want to run a non-profit that cures cancer. Or perhaps you’re aiming to be the next Donald Trump. Whatever the goal, define it so you can work towards achieving it.

If the goal is simple – Deadlift 500 pounds (yeah, this is mine, I won’t lie) – then working out a plan is also simple:

  1. Learn proper form
  2. Perfect proper form at lower weights and determine current maximum (lets say it’s 100 lbs to start)
  3. Deadlift 3 times per week
  4. Add 5% weight every second week whenever possible
  5. Train for about a year and a half
  6. BAM! Deadlift 500lbs. (Dance a jig. High-five someone.)

Obviously with more complicated goals, you need a more complicated plan. A good strategy is to take your overall goal (e.g. “own a successful roofing business with four locations state-wide”) and break it into smaller goals with more easily measured and achieved results. If you break huge goals into smaller and smaller chunks, you end up with a road map of To Do items that will be smaller “wins” leading to an overall “victory”. In addition to being easier to accomplish in the short run, these smaller goals have the added benefit of being simpler to change when (not if) part of the plan fails. Now, instead of failing at your “whole business dream”, you’ve just failed “to acquire a new client this week” and can revise accordingly.

Be prepared to Fail, Completely and Totally

This is the most important point I have to make today. You need to be prepared for whatever you’re doing to fail completely the first time you try it, maybe even the first few times, before it starts to work out. Maybe your business acumen is just awful, and you need to learn a different approach. Maybe no one wants to buy your product because it looks horrible. Maybe you’ve never run a day in your life and starting with a 5k next week isn’t the best choice. Whatever your plan, accept that you might not know how best to accomplish it, that success is an iterative process, and for a while you’re probably going to suck at it.

Because it’s okay to suck at something. It’s okay to need to learn. It’s okay to need to practice. It’s okay to not know what you’re doing in every facet of your plan. It’s okay to fail however spectacularly you need to in order to get one step closer to your goals.

When you decide that something is worth striving for, you also need to accept that there will be wins and there will be losses. You will have successes (“First customer!”) and you will have failures (“I totally crapped out of that half marathon…”). The successes will be sweet and you should enjoy them for what they are, but ultimately it’s not enjoying your successes that will drive your goals to completion. Anyone can accomplish anything when all they see every day is sunshine and roses, but that’s not reality. The thing that will really drive you to accomplishment is when everything goes to Hell and you stand strong, learn from your failures, makes changes, and try again.

Failure isn’t an end, it’s just a step in the process. A Failure is just one more way not to reach your goal. Every person who has accomplished something amazing has failed many, many times. Once you fail enough, you’ve weeded out what doesn’t work and all you’re left with is what does. A great positive to planning for failure, is that the successes feel even better when they do come. When it comes to how things will turn out: Hope for Disney, but plan for Shakespeare.

Go out there and Fail, so that you can Succeed.

Oh, and to close the gap between intro and ending: owning the gym scares the crap out of me every day…and it’s the most rewarding, amazing experience I’ve ever had. It’s doing better than I hoped and better than I planned for. It’s also the fifth or sixth business idea I’ve gone through in almost as many years, but it’s the only one which worked out. Failure is the best teacher I’ve had; I suggest signing up for the course. 🙂