One of my favourite exercises in business development is to colour in the joyful details of an average day in my dream business. What does success look like? What ideal salary would I enjoy? What colour is my beachside hammock and am I sipping coconut water or piña colada?
Countless articles breathlessly examine the habits and attitudes of successful people. CEOs of glamorous tech startup companies experiencing exponential growth write about the importance of resilience, how success is an attitude, and the minutiae of morning routines.
But there are next-to-no public discussions about failure in business.
Every week, I meet successful small business owners who share with me their highly self-critical opinions. I’m not immune to this, either.
We may hold unrealistic views of what success in business is. We allow ourselves to be derailed by others’ success stories. Many of us are grappling with jealousy, finding social media an emotional minefield to navigate, and sinking in a swamp of critical thinking.
Something’s got to give.
Since the rise of the internet, anyone with a $3000 website, glamorous photo shoot and talent with social media can make themselves appear a roaring success. The internet makes “reality” unrealistic while simultaneously making us more visible to each other.
But online popularity does not equal cash in the bank. I’ve met with and read about many people with hundreds of thousands of social media followers who still need a 9-5 office job they loathe. Bloggers with large, loyal readerships grapple with trying to translate web traffic into dollars. Popularity does not equal success.
Death by comparison
This is not a new problem. At the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy.”
We compare things to our bank of existing knowledge in order to make sense of the world.
Problems start when we habitually compare our business with others’, and fall short. Surrounded by seemingly countless people evidently enjoying immense popularity and financial success, we trace smaller and smaller circles until we’re no longer moving at all. We have rendered ourselves inert.
Success and failure
Failure is a byproduct of action. Any action, in any direction will, after not long, bring about some failure. We promote an event but don’t get the minimum numbers required to break-even. We pitch ourselves, to resounding indifference. We start a class where numbers drop slowly over time, until we’re effectively paying to teach.
All people in business, or who’ve lived any time at all, gather several failures. Things don’t fly. Events turn out differently than expected. Manuscripts get rejected, over and over again.
Each failure is merely a speed bump in the road. It’s a lesson and (hopefully) valuable feedback to use towards the next action.
But too many people are using one or two bad experiences to write off a potentially lucrative opportunity or suffocate a long-held dream.
Mountains, molehills, and speed bumps
One of the biggest opportunities business owners have is in accelerating our self-development. Most speed bumps are the size of molehills – small, and barely noticeable from a distance. The skill is to understand quickly and clearly what caused them, to make any necessary adjustments, and then to keep accelerating forward.
Too many people turn a speed bump into a mountain. I was floored to hear a friend speak about their career recently as a litany of failures. Where I would proudly introduce my friend to others as a strong, confident and capable individual, she sees herself as having taken a tangent with her career, not having used a particular talent to its fullest, or having been bullied in the workplace.
This isn’t right. Experience is a valuable commodity. It should be used to build confidence and courage, not to retreat into regrets and self-loathing.
As a society and as individuals, we need to redefine our approach to success and failure, and build the emotional resilience necessary to Get (Awesome) Stuff Done.
Becoming familiar with failure
Perhaps if we spoke and shared more about failures, we wouldn’t see them as such a big deal. My favourite failure stories include the following –
Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four and didn’t read until he was seven as well as later being expelled from school.
Lady Gaga was dropped by her first major record label after just three months, and iconic fashion editor Anna Wintour was fired after nine months as junior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar for being too edgy.
Vincent van Gogh experienced hardly any acclaim in his lifetime, selling only one paintings for a small sum to a friend while Andy Warhol’s attempt to donate a work in 1956 to the Museum of Modern Art in New York was rejected (MoMA nowadays owns 168 of Warhol’s pieces.)
JK Rowling was fired from Amnesty International in London and Oprah Winfrey was fired from her position as evening news reporter for being too emotional, as well as from her position as producer of Baltimore’s WJZ-TV.
The Book Thief, which sold eight million copies, stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for over 230 weeks, and was recently made into a major motion picture, was written by Markus Zusak 150 to 200 times before he nailed it.
Overcoming comparisons, inertia and failure
The remedy for overcoming comparisons is to disengage. If you’re in the grips of self-loathing and paralysis, then unplug, switch off, and ban yourself from social media until your symptoms recede. Ban yourself from situations that will antagonise your symptoms until you’re feeling stronger.
The remedy for avoiding further comparisons and overcoming inertia is to become your own cheerleader. This is a much-needed life skill that all adults require, since grown-ups can no longer rely on their parents for cheering.
Becoming your own cheerleader may include positive self-talk (as well as occasional headmistress speeches when one needs one’s socks pulling up), a gratitude journal for big and small business successes, and case studies, feedback and testimonials from lovely clients.
The remedy for overcoming failures is action. No other known cure exists. We get up, wipe ourselves off, and keep going. We remind ourselves that the world needs our greatest work, yet to come.
After all, the biggest failure is to let fear stop us from realising our full potential.