I sat down for coffee and a chat with Jac Phillips, Head of Brand & Marketing for Bank of Melbourne, recently. I asked her if she would give me a quote for an article on learning from failure. She said, "Sure! I've had plenty of those." It was the kind of response I've heard from many successful people in my life because, quite frankly, if you open your front door and step outside, you're going to fail. In fact, attempting not to do so pretty much secures ones mediocrity.
Shift your view
The road to success is paved by failure. I’ve failed so many times I've lost count. Some might suggest I failed when my last company went through TechStars, and didn’t secure funding on Demo Day. I don't see it that way. When I look back on the experience, I feel really proud of myself for having had the courage to throw my hat in the ring when I was so far out of my comfort zone. Let’s face it, at the time I was a singer-songwriter who had learned to code using Dreamweaver and built a really shoddy prototype of an idea I had that would help other singer-songwriters. Next thing I knew I was one of 10 companies selected out of thousands of applicants.
I was sitting next to kids who were more than a decade younger than me — neuroscientists working on robotics and artificial intelligence after having graduated early from Harvard. In my mind, I had already succeeded.
Feel it then move on
One of the TechStars Founders, Brad Feld, shares a fantastic story on recovering from failure. It’s about Jeremy Bloom, the CEO of a company called Integrate, in whom Brad is an investor. In 2006 at the Winter Olympics, Jeremy was the best freestyle mogul skier in the world. On his last run, he was expected to take gold. Halfway down he missed a turn and placed sixth. Jeremy told Brad he gave himself 24 hours to be angry, depressed, upset, furious, frustrated, confused, and despondent. One minute after 24 hours, he was on to the next thing, with the failure solidly behind him.
Things die so there can be new growth
Truth be told, I don't believe there is such a thing as failure, providing we grow from the experience. Failed businesses produce insight into what not to do next time and sprout the seeds of ideas that go on to be very successful. Failed marriages and relationships often produce beautiful children who go on to do miraculous things that impact the world in hugely meaningful ways. These so called ‘failed’ relationships shine a light on the gap between who we were when we met the person and how the relationship served us then, to who we’ve grown to become and why we possibly can’t grow together anymore. Failure teaches us to be honest with ourselves in ways we perhaps weren’t equipped to prior to its arrival.
Failure as sculpture
I believe failure should teach us to believe in ourselves even more and to be gentle with ourselves when we experience life correcting us. It's too easy to let things supposedly going ‘wrong’ get to us to the point where we abandon who we are at the feet of circumstance. Failure shows us where we don't work, so we can discover where we do. It teaches us, oftentimes painfully, who we're not so we can become who we really are. I’ve learned to experience it as the chiselling away of the unnecessary.
We’re born to learn
To fail is to live and to live is to learn. So one might say, failure teaches us everything we need to know, if we're willing to sit in the middle of it and see it for what it is. There's such beauty and protection within the things that didn't work, for they point us in the direction of those that do. And once we have a life that works, we wouldn't trade it for all the world.
I'll leave you with Jac's quote, which I feel encapsulates the very spirit and beauty we can find within failure if we're willing to look through different eyes.
“To have never failed is to have never tried and I would rather be known for ‘failing’ than not having given something a good go.”- Jac Phillips