How do you make failure work for you?
llustration by Alexander Grahovski
Standing before hundreds of graduates on the campus of Harvard in 2008, JK Rowling, author of the wildly successful Harry Potter series, chose an unlikely source of inspiration for her audience and spoke of failure. “I had an old typewriter and a big idea.” She said to the crowd, recalling her struggles as a single mother and a writer, “And so, rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
That speech has since been added to a long list of Rowling’s successes, and has circulated the internet to remind us that struggle breathes life into the creative process and true character is born of hardship.
The athlete struggling for perfect form, the artist battling his canvas, and the entrepreneur striving to find the right fit for her startup have all become a tribute to the necessity of struggle. They are a reminder that our failures are an opportunity to value our experiences in the same way we appreciate the crash and hiss of a wave that would never have come to shore without ebb and flow.
Given years to reflect, Rowling was able to impart wisdom which can only be understood when our struggles are seen from a distance. It’s a self-taught-knowledge that a simple guide to life cannot fully capture in the way that personal experience can.
With this in mind, we set out to find a common ground among these unique experiences asking those who have achieved great success to speak to us about failure. What we found — as Rowling did when she looked up toward her goals from ‘rock bottom’ — is that it is all about perspective.
Conquer your fear by recognizing opportunity in failure
At times the very idea of failure can be enough to stop us in our tracks. The notion that sweat, toil, and sleepless nights in pursuit of success can simply amount to a hard-learned lesson is a heavy thought to carry. But recognizing the value of failure as an opportunity to improve transforms the experience into a foundation for new and better-informed ideas.
Having thrived for several years in a highly competitive industry Andrew Oliver, President of Oliver and Bonacini Restaurants (O&B), understands the cautious steps we take toward our goals.
“When you fail in a restaurant or hospitality operation, the amount of work, effort, mental energy, emotional drain, and financial hit that it takes, compared to something working well, is astronomical.” He says, “The old adage of ‘once bitten, twice shy’ really rings true.”
In the 23 years since O&B opened their first Toronto restaurant, Jump, Oliver has experienced all sides of the industry; from operating a successful business in the middle of a recession to failures which have imparted hard lessons and the motivation to press on. Understanding that true, “failure is just not trying in the first place,” O&B has become one of the most highly recognized names in the business.
“[T]here are two types of people in this business,” Oliver insists, “people who sit there and dwell on the things they can’t control, and people who put their heads down and focus on what they can control. The second group of people take a different mindset and decide to make the best of a bad situation.”
Even the most well defined goals are often met with challenges, and fear arises from the uncertainty that those unplanned events can bring. A willingness to explore that uncertainty allows for an understanding of what went wrong at the drawing board. When we come to view failure as an opportunity to adapt our original ideas, we strengthen and stabilize our path to success.
Embrace change and adapt with it
Change is a constant across all life experiences. In business, as in everyday life, change can be difficult to confront. Consistency provides us with a level of comfort and stability that can allow us to thrive. But an outlook that is too rigid can stifle our ability to adapt to changing circumstances and as Nicole Verkindt, President of Offset Market Exchange (OMX), points out, no industry can escape change.
“No sectors are immune,” she says, “and it is never a question of if, but always a question of when.”
OMX, an online platform which now facilitates 80 percent of government military procurement globally, was first turned down by investors who did not believe Verkindt’s startup could break into an industry of well-connected giants.
“Too many investors spend their time looking in the rear view mirror to analyze opportunities,” Verkindt says, believing that her biggest failure came at the hands of this reluctance to accept change in an industry she grew up in.
“We had to pivot our product and business model many little times in the early days to find a product and market fit,” she says. Recognizing that in order to put the lessons we have learned into practice we have to be willing to make the necessary changes. Even if that means a total transformation.
“Changing paths, abandoning one idea for another, happens all the time and is very smart,” says Blake Mycoskie, Founder and Chief Shoe Giver at TOMS. Mycoskie, who now runs a highly successful clothing business, has explored everything from media to philanthropy and even reality television as a contestant on The Amazing Race. “The key,” he claims, when changing paths, “is to make sure you have exhausted every possible strategy to make it work.”
Respect and learn from the experiences of those around you
As a result of the deeply personal nature of failure, it can be easy to believe that we are alone in our struggles. But just as change is a constant, failure is something which everyone experiences. Whether on a large or small scale, those around us that have also experienced failure have developed a wealth of knowledge through experience.
“The best at anything also often have what most people perceive as the most failures.” Mycoskie says, “Babe Ruth hit more home runs than anyone in baseball…but what people don’t quote is that he also led the league in strikeouts.”
Opening yourself up to assistance from others can help you to learn from their experiences without having to live through their hardships. Much more than that, it can provide support for your own success.
“It cannot be underestimated how important the people around you are for success in this business.” Andrew Oliver says, referring to his own business which relies heavily on direct interaction with customers and a cohesive team to provide the ideal experience. “99 percent of your success comes from the people you surround yourself with.”
Success is not a prize, but an ongoing process
More often than not we see success and failure as polar opposites. After all, we aim to achieve success and plan to avoid failure. But just as failure can be seen as an opportunity rather than an unintended result, success ought to be seen as an ongoing process rather than a static achievement.
As Nicole Verkindt points out, both are essential pieces of a larger mechanism.
“Lots of failures lead you to success, they are in fact, the key ingredient to the process. Success is not an ‘a ha moment’ or an overnight thing. It is the end result after enduring a lot of pain. It is a marathon, not a sprint, and you have to go through a ton of failures the whole way.”
Through a strange quirk of fate, Philip Krim, Co-Founder and CEO of Casper, explained that his first major success was also his first major failure. While the startup mattress company managed to make $1 million in sales within a month, their inventory could not meet the customers’ enthusiasm for the product. The experience has helped Casper to focus more closely on their customers’ needs and taught Krim that the relationship between success and failure is deeply intertwined.
“I seldom meet highly successful people who have never encountered failure.” He says, “The intersection of failure and a willingness to learn is where you will find your success.”
The best way to put the lessons learned through struggle to good use is by continuing to put them into practice long after success is achieved. With a view of success as something which has to be maintained over time, we can also preserve the value of our experiences.
Embrace your shortcomings and define your own success
In the end, while we can learn from the experience of others, we have to define our own success. Knowing how to identify our flaws and accepting our weaknesses can help to amplify our strengths and choose a path that is well suited to them.
As Andrew Oliver points out, “Having the term well-defined ahead of time helps you avoid the problem of having to pivot a project as a success when it’s really not. By not defining the success, I think you hinder your chances of achieving it.”
Relinquishing our own definition of success can leave us bound to someone else’s standards and minimize what we have learned from our own failures. Defining our own terms not only leads us to our intended goals, but can ensure that the process itself is enjoyable.
“I love sleep,” says Krim, “but if you're not excited to get out of bed every day for work, then it's time to take a look at what you do and reevaluate.”
“My freedom came when I realized that I did not need money or success to be happy,” Mycoskie says having built his company in tandem with a philanthropic initiative which matches every pair of shoes purchased with a new pair of shoes for a child in need. “I wanted to start a business that mattered and that made me feel good about my time on earth.”
In setting a clear definition for our own success we can distinguish our ultimate goal from distractions; when a minor failure can become a lesson, and a major failure becomes a sign of unrealistic standards.