The five deep truths that I learned from failure – and how I became more successful as a result
There is a disturbing trend I would like to address when it comes to starting a business or any other ambitious endeavour and seemingly “failing”. We hear statistics to the effect that one in five businesses don’t survive their first year and we talk about “business failure”.
I’ve seen a lot of people “fail”, to use a common term for it. Society often upbraids them for it and Ireland is particularly rough at doing this. The lay assumption is that they did something wrong, or they didn’t work hard enough – that it’s somehow all their fault and failure is both easily avoidable and inexcusable.
As if the path to success was always obvious from the first.
So many people have told me about their “business failure” and prefaced what they had to say with “Please don’t think I’m a failure… but I found out I didn’t enjoy it / it wasn’t for me / etc.” I would never, ever think such a person is a failure.
Some things you can’t learn any other way
When you start a business, there are so many things you don’t know, you can’t know, until you try them for yourself – you can’t find out about them any other way. Let’s say you want to create a business because it sounds like such a great idea: you can work flexible hours, there isn’t any boss to order you about, you can be creative and work on something that truly matters to you.
So you work on your business for months or years – and then you realise that it’s not really for you. For whatever reason, you are not finding the qualities that you were hoping for. For example it’s less creative than you thought it would be; or you find that other activities in your life provide you with the same excitement, without the hassle of admin; or the product worked very well for a while but then some trend changed. So you decide to go back to a job.
And there you have it: another “business failure”. Why? Why is that failure? It just didn’t work out, it wasn’t for you. Of course I’m not talking about people who start businesses as a quick fix to walk away from their debts and leave people in the lurch. If you give it your all and you find out you don’t really enjoy it or it’s not working, it is a sign of lucid courage and maturity to acknowledge it and to move on.
Refusing to move on when everything is telling you it’s not for you can mean you refuse to face the facts, that you equate the success of your business with your value as a person, and it leaves you in a place that’s dangerous for you, your wellbeing and sanity, and that of the people around you.
What is this failure thing we’re mortally afraid of,
Experience is the name of knowledge that you can’t get by reading books or by asking others: you have to do yourself. That’s why the social stigma around failure is so debilitating, because it means we are afraid of the price we’ll have to pay simply for taking action. But without action, nothing happens.
In Silicon Valley today you have higher chances of getting hired or of getting funding if you have a few business failures under your belt. Of course you don’t want only failures, but knowing how businesses fail and what can go wrong gives you a better sense of how a new venture is doing.
Fear of failure holds us back
and robs us of game-changing insights
Sometimes the reason we don’t tackle a big project is because it sounds like an awful lot of hard work. And we wouldn’t mind putting in the work, but what if we fail? What if, after hours and hours of toil, we end up back where we started, with nothing to show for our efforts?
However, doing is very often the only path to learning. Take starting a business: you can read entrepreneurship blogs and books until the end of time, and it will allow you to seem knowledgeable at dinner parties, but until you actually try to do it, you don’t know what it truly means to start and run a business. There are mistakes that you need to make, for you to have the “a-ha!” revelation that will change your perspective.
And whenever you try something for yourself, whenever you take action, you simply cannot end up back where you started. You will have gained learning, experience and understanding.
Sure, before you try, before you go all in, the promise of more experience and understanding might not seem so enticing. A paltry reward.
But once you go through the looking glass, there’s no going back: having started a business, written three books, started to export, and taken intense professional exams, I find it difficult today to imagine that never starting at all could have seemed in any way preferable to failure in any one of those things.
That’s what experience and deep understanding do to you: you wouldn’t trade them for the blissful ignorance that you had before you tried that ambitious endeavour you dreamt of, even though it might not have worked out exactly as you thought it would.
My own failure story
In the spring of 2012 I was a very happy, very busy entrepreneur: I had just finished writing my first book, The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom, which was going to be published a few months later. I was criss-crossing the country and the EU giving keynotes and trainings for prestigious corporate clients.
In the midst of all this, I decided to register for CFA level 3, the third part of the Chartered Financial Analyst exams. I had passed levels 1 and 2 on the first attempt; but I knew that level 3 was in a league of its own and I braced myself for a year of very intense studying – on top of everything else.
But I had trust in my systems, honed over the years: SMART goals, as well as strategies to break down a big goal until it is doable. The only thing that I could be certain of, when I embarked on that year of studying, was that I would give it my best effort. Early mornings and late nights studying? Check. Saturdays at the library? Check. Sundays poring over books? Check.
From September until the exam on the June Bank Holiday Monday, I hunkered down and studied. As the days went by, I remember thinking with clenched jaws, God, soon it will be over, soon it will be over! I took the exam and waited several weeks for the result.
When it came, I had failed.
I distinctly remember the day I got the result. My husband (then fiancé) and I have a process for going through the results: he will look up the results on the official website and give me a call. I remember thinking No, no, no, no! This can’t be right! After all those months of study, study and more study!
I’m enthusiastic by nature, and particularly enthusiastic about my business. I never ever leave the office to go home before the end of the day because I’m not able for it. But on that day I did. I went home and felt crushed, and I had to call all those people, friends and family, to let them know. Over and over again, I had to call people who are very close to me, people who had worried all the time for me, and I had to tell each one of them that I had failed.
Many people weren’t quite sure what to say. Many commiserated from a very heartfelt place and I was grateful for that, even though my ego was smarting from the blow. Some people said “Well, you didn’t study hard enough, it’s as simple as that.” And I thought, “You have no idea how hard I actually studied.”
Some people who had been through something similar, putting in a lot of effort into an undertaking that didn’t work out, had very interesting, very illuminating comments to make, as they were speaking from experience. Their words of wisdom resonated with me as I thought “Yes, you know what it’s like, you understand”.
And a few people said “Oh get some perspective, it’s just an exam”. Indeed, it was just an exam, and I simply had to sign up to take it again the next year. Yes, the main casualties were my ego and my confidence, but I think it’s extremely important to take some time, as much time as you need, to ruminate and simply digest the emotional turmoil.
Yes, failure hurts, and refusing to acknowledge the hurt is counter-productive. On that day, I couldn’t help but think of all the “wasted” hours, all the times I had had to say “no” to something in order to study, all the business opportunities that I didn’t have time to pursue, and all for what? For “nothing” (or so I thought on that day).
If it happened to your best friend, you would be very sorry for them and you would share their feelings. So be a good friend to yourself and feel sorry for yourself for a while. It will make it easier to rebound, to get up, dust yourself off and get going again.
Feel your feelings, but take your cue
to get back on track
Then “that phonecall” came.
I was sitting on the stairs after I had called everybody, feeling discouraged. The phone, which I had left on a step next to me, rang with a Cork number. I didn’t want to pick it up, but as I am from Cork I was thinking perhaps it was my parents? But why wouldn’t they call from their home number? I was going to let it go to voicemail but I took it.
It was a lady called Siobhan Finn, from Cork Innovates, a wonderful organisation that had invited me to speak several times. She asked “How are you?” and it was all I could do to keep my voice upbeat.
She was calling to ask whether I would speak at the launch of the Cork chapter for Dress for Success. She explained that Dress for Success helps women in disadvantaged and vulnerable situations get back on their feet and back in the workforce. A lot of them wouldn’t exactly be oozing self-confidence, quite the contrary, and Dress for Success coaches them until they feel ready to walk into that job interview with their head held high and a spring in their step.
And so would I come to the launch and talk about success and self-confidence?
The irony struck me as very apt and I agreed on the spot.
As I put down the phone I reflected that some people I had called earlier had urged me to get perspective. Indeed, perspective is very important to get motivated, and I’m usually quite good at putting things in perspective, at focusing on what I can do, and at taking the next step.
But sometimes you need a little nudge, you need somebody else to provide that perspective you can’t muster. Siobhan Finn’s phone call had done exactly that. She was taking me at my word and asking me to practice what I preach – and on the day of the launch, women who had faced difficulties a million times bigger than just failing an exam would be looking to me for inspiration, to show them that they could do it. So I had better deliver that inspiration.
On the day of the launch, I shared exactly that story: how Siobhan’s phone call had caught me at a low point, and was a reminder of the values I have chosen to represent. I was being asked to walk my talk, and it was just what I needed to shake me out of my self-pity.
So what now?
My fiancé came home and, as he knows how to do, gently but firmly pushed me to get back on track: “So, what’s going to happen next?” “There’s no question what’s going to happen next,” I said, “I’m signing up again and I’m going to do it next year.” The idea that I just didn’t want to go through the whole thing again did cross my mind, but I didn’t consider it seriously.
One strategy that has served me extremely well is this: whenever I have decided to do something that’s uncertain or stressful or scary, and before I start trying to wiggle out of it, I go through the motions. I take all the necessary steps as if I was an automaton, or as if I was asked to do this for somebody else.
So I just went through the motions of logging on to the CFA website, putting in the credit card details and paying for registration for the exam. I went through the motions of asking my PA to block off the exam date in my diary, and to schedule study sessions throughout the year.
That’s what I call the “milk into coffee effect”: if something is too much to think about, too big, too overwhelming, too anything, just go through the motions unthinkingly as if you were simply adding milk to your coffee. Otherwise if you start thinking about it, you might talk yourself out of it.
And that was it. With some more gentle but firm urging from my husband, the following Saturday I was back at the library. I didn’t exactly jump out of bed that day, either. I was thinking more along the lines of All. Those. Saturdays. Again.
But, milk into coffee – I just got up and went.
I learned an awful lot that second year. Of course, I deepened my knowledge of the content by revising it. And I also knew now that studying hard was essential, but not sufficient. My attitude needed to change: the first time around, I was only focused on hitting my study goals (which I did), and on being finished.
When I realised that mistake, it was an “a-ha!” moment. All through the first year I had focused on being finished – not on passing. Of course I wanted to pass, but CFA 3 is a very difficult exam and very, very few people pass all three levels on the first attempt. So I had unconsciously lowered my expectations and decided that the only thing I could control was the amount of work I put in. I had studied “hard”, by making hard work of it.
The second time around I needed to study smarter, not harder. So I changed my environment, I changed my study methods, and at what time I studied. I knew I needed to go the extra mile, so I came up with this strategy: I recorded myself reading my study notes aloud (you can do that simply with the voice recorder on your phone), and I listened to those recordings whenever my hands were busy but my mind was idle. Brushing my teeth, applying make-up, going for a walk, sitting on the bus or driving to work: all those little pockets of time really added up, and I was surprised that I’d take away new insights with each listening.
And that’s just one example of something I changed. I wouldn’t have been so “ingenious” if it hadn’t been for failure.
And a year later when my now-husband called with the exam result, I had passed.
Carefully consider what you wish for
We usually say “be careful what you wish for” to mean that sometimes, you want something and you forget about the negative consequences of getting it. But that’s not what I mean here. What I mean is: you might be focused on one specific outcome that you equate with success, and decide you have “failed” if you don’t achieve that specific outcome. But with that mindset you might overlook very real success.
A good example is financial freedom. People often say to me “I’d love more money so then I could do this or that”, and they expect me to tell them how they should go and make more money. But money is only a tool. It’s great to be able to create it when you need it (and that’s what two of my books are about), but sometimes making more money is a circuitous route to the thing you really want.
If you want a cruise in the Caribbean – do you want the cruise itself, or the money to afford the cruise? You will say “Well, aren’t they one and the same thing?” No.
The speaker who is invited on the cruise to give presentations on their topic of expertise doesn’t need to save to afford the cruise. In fact, they might make money by taking the cruise. There are many ways (all legal!) to go on a cruise, other than to pay for it. You might be a mystery shopper hired by the company to report on customer experience for example.
So if you manage to get on the cruise for free (or even to get paid for going), but you don’t have the money that others paid to go, have you “failed”?
Experience, even if it seemingly ends in “failure”, is actually a huge success, in and of itself. And it can lead you to the outcome you wanted, only under a different guise. I once had coffee with an entrepreneur who had started her own online shop. Mind you, it was a very ambitious project. She was pouring hours and hours of effort into it, working very hard to make it a success.
After many months of intense effort, she found that she couldn’t continue to do it in this way: she was working on the website on the side, on top of a full-time job and taking care of her family. It wasn’t sustainable and she was exhausted. It broke her heart, but she had to let go of the online shop.
“What a failure.” Was it really? I don’t think so. She had given something her very best effort, but when she assessed her priorities, she decided that spending time with her family and performing well in her job where more important to her.
Isn’t that an extremely wise, profound insight, and one that she couldn’t have got any other way? And imagine the deep introspection and the courage it took to make a final decision: “Even though I have invested mountains of time and money and business smarts into this project, I make the decision to let go of it.” That’s the kind of decision that demands you take full responsibility for your choices. It shows a degree of wisdom and strength very few people have. To me, that’s success.
I met her again many months later. Lo and behold, she was the Head of Online Sales for a huge, household-name brand. What a prestigious job, and job title. That was success in one of its most socially recognisable forms. Of course she was hired on the strength of her “failed” business and thanks to the skills she had polished to perfection while running it. One way or the other, she was at the helm of a huge online store.
Some of the absolute most precious lessons of confronting failure are about yourself. By having to take the CFA3 exam a second time, I learned more about myself, from the times of day I’m most productive and alert, to how I deal with things not going my way. I learned more about the delicate balance between pushing myself, trying harder, and self-care and self-compassion.
I also proved to myself that I had perseverance and tenacity: I proved that yes, I do practice what I preach, even when the going gets tough. Having to go through the vulnerability of failure deepened my empathy with others as well as my self-confidence, because I walked the talk and I kept going – and now I know that I can do it, because I’ve done it.
Don’t play down failure –
allow yourself to feel how bad it feels
Of course, it was just an exam. It’s not like it was the worst possible thing that could have happened to me. But I don’t want to take away from what I felt, and what a lot of people feel. They’re told they should put things in perspective and then they feel bad for feeling bad.
It’s important to cry tears of frustration if you need to, and to really feel the rage and the disappointment of failure. This is what drives you forward: it renews your hunger, it prevents becoming complacent. It proves that you care and after all, it’s human nature to simply feel.
The only reason I felt bad was because I cared deeply about the exam. Passing that professional exam meant an awful lot in terms of my career and my business. Simply dismissing it with “Ah well, worse things have happened” would have made it seem less important. And when I looked at it objectively, passing CFA 3 was important, very important.
And if I had shrugged it off, if I had said “Oh it’s just an exam”, I don’t think I would have passed it the next time either – there is a price to pay for taking things lightly, for trying to be “too cool for school”.
There are of course always worse things that could happen – but this is happening to you. So take the time to acknowledge your feelings.
Failure reinforces empathy
Empathy, being able to truly put yourself in somebody else’s place, in a non-judgmental way, is an essential quality that is the bedrock of satisfying, sustainable relationships in all facets of life.
Experiencing the emotional turmoil of failure, the wounded pride, the shame, the discouragement, the frustration, has reinforced my ability to empathise.
So – there you have it, the precious lessons
I learned from failure:
- Adjust course and learn from your mistakes: study your failures to ground your successes
- Don’t feel bad for feeling bad: acknowledge your feelings, they’re the sign that this thing is important for you
- Recognise your dream outcome even under a different guise: it’s a fine balance between having laser focus and keeping your eyes on a certain prize, and being open enough to recognise when opportunity comes knocking
- Failure gives you more empathy – it makes you wiser. And wisdom is, in and of itself, a success.
- Get back on track: whether you decide to go at it again, or give up and try something else, never, ever, ever give up. It only becomes a failure when you stop trying and stop learning.
Are you on the list?