I recently had a conversation with someone who was pointing out how many times I’d failed to meet the same goal. It felt pretty awful, especially because I knew it was true. But in that moment, I also realized that I could either accept that as my permanent truth, or I could look a bit deeper at why I was failing. In the process, I discovered three powerful truths about failure.
Sometimes failure to try is our way of gaining space until the time is right.
Two years ago, I suggested that my talented, artistic daughter open an Etsy shop to sell her handmade cards, calendars and posters. I campaigned pretty hard for the idea. The entrepreneur in me wanted to see my daughter take control of her own destiny and share her talent with the world, but the mom in me wanted her to find her own path, whatever it was. So I backed off and left her alone when she made it clear she wasn’t ready.
Well, for the most part, I backed off.
Except when she would show me something she bought on Etsy.
Or someone would mention Etsy.
Or I would mention Etsy.
Ok, to be honest, I probably didn’t leave her alone as well as I should have.
You can imagine my surprise recently when she sent the text I’d been hoping to see for over two years. “So I know I’ve been really resistant against an etsy shop…” she wrote. Her text had phrases like “… but it occurred to me … I was looking at … and I kept thinking I could do better … and then I realized I should.”
It was in that moment that I realized what likely felt like failure to her two years ago when she said she didn’t think she could try this new idea was simply her way of carving out space. She needed time to muster up the courage and to own the idea for herself.
It wasn’t failure at all. It was simply not the right time.
Sometimes when we fail to try, we see it as failure. That perception makes it harder to find the courage to try the next time we see an opportunity. Sometimes no isn’t failure; it’s simply not the right time.
The skills we learn on our way to failure often carry us to our next success.
There was a point in my company’s journey about three years ago where I couldn’t see my way forward. I was a nearing the end of my bootstrapped resources. My initial idea hadn’t taken off like the wildfire I’d imagined, and I saw a brick wall in front of me that felt an awful lot like the end. I didn’t sleep at night, and I couldn’t focus on anything during the day. I was looking in the face of failure, and it felt worse than anything I’d felt before.
One afternoon I started writing down all of the things I’d learned since launching my startup, from the mundane to the profound: how to write a business plan, incorporate a business, set up a bank account, pay corporate taxes. I learned to hire an accountant so they could pay corporate taxes and a lawyer to set up the business correctly. I learned the value of building relationships and a network. The list was several pages long, and at the end of that exercise, I realized I’d gained more skills in those three years than I could have any other way – all skills that would help me do something else if I did fail.
When I realized that even if I failed, it wouldn’t be a complete failure, that helped me focus and take control. We pivoted the company shortly after that, and within months, we were gaining traction and customers – a validation that this new direction was solving real problems in the market. We’ve grown a lot since then – acquired another company, hired employees, gained new customers, built out new technology – and none of it would have happened if I had accepted imminent failure as the complete story.
Nine out of ten startups fail. 92% of New Years Resolutions fail. And the number of diets that fail? That statistic is all over the map. Failure is part of the journey for most of us, in some part of our lives or another. None of us experience success at everything we try. Accepting that failure is a real possibility is very different than believing that failure is imminent. Changing our outlook when we begin to fail can change the outcome. There are often far more successes than failures if we just look for them.
Failure is often a result of stopping short of going all in.
When I decided to not close up shop but to pivot the direction of the company, I also decided that there could be no holding back. I’d always had this thought when I was a solopreneur that if I failed, it was just me that would be affected. I told myself that trying at all took a lot of courage and was a success in itself. But once we pivoted, I committed to going all in – nothing held back. It was so much more terrifying than when I’d allowed for failure to be a viable option. But it also made all the difference in my level of willingness to put myself out there on the edge of my skills and knowledge. It was a scary thing to acknowledge that if I failed, everyone on our team would have to start over at something else, not just me.
Believe me, I am still very aware that our company could end up having to close its doors someday. I’m not naive about the odds. But I’ve witnessed the difference between a really good effort and going all in, and I’m convinced that it is only when we are willing to be terrified on the edge of the precipice that we find success. You know what else I’ve learned about going all in? Others can tell. They’re willing to get on board and get behind you when they know how committed you are to success. We’re still in the beginning of our growth, and we’ve enjoyed our growth due to the commitment and belief of an amazing staff, savvy investors and great clients who were willing to get behind our vision. I never take for granted just how remarkable that is.
Failure feels so much worse, eats at our self esteem, when we know we lacked commitment and effort. I’m pretty sure this is the root to the continued failure I’ve experienced up until now in one of the goals I set for myself a very long time ago. I’m having to remind myself to not be afraid of failure – it may or may not come. Be afraid of not going all in. That’s a much more bitter pill to swallow, and it will hold us back from ever enjoying the heady rush of finally finding success.