Failure_sign Last month, I hit the wall.  One of the best things that has come out of that experience is uncovering my beliefs about failure.  Photo by Sean MacEntee.

Entrepreneurs are in the business of trying new things.  Not everything works out. Heck, if half of what you try works, you're doing well. A common mantra among start-ups is "Fail fast."  In other words, failure is the gift of finding out what doesn't work and moving on to the next experiment, quickly.

So it came as a shock when I realized that:

  • I avoid looking at the numbers associated with my businesses to avoid facing failure head on.  The numbers don't lie. You are either making money or losing money. 
  • Failure feels like death. When I started out as a career coach, I was in the red at the end of the year, after being in business for just six months. I went into a long depression that lasted the entire month of December.  It was the same feeling when I hit the wall a few weeks ago with my newest business, My Alumni Link. The world turns from vibrant to dull overnight.
  • Smart_enough I take failure personally.  After working two years on My Alumni Link, and seeing that working harder won't necessarily increase the profitability, I wonder, "Am I smart enough to turn this around? "  My Gremlin gleefully shouts, "No, you are not good enough!"  And yet, we can do all the right things and the landscape can shift overnight.  A friend told me about a mom and pop convenience store that had been in business for nearly a decade.  A storefront nearby lost its lease and guess who moved in?  A national convenience store chain.  Overnight the mom and pop store saw its sales cut in half.  Photo by Lyfetime.
  • What I interpret as failure may be what others interpret as one step on the road to success.  Friends reminded me that it's natural to lose money the first couple of years in business, given start-up costs. They were right.  Looking back on my early years as a career coach, I can see that the first step on an upward trajectory may point downward.

Much of these insights came in talking with a friend last week. In the course of the conversation, I blurted out, "If I don't change the way that I view failure, it will kill me as an entrepreneur."  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized the mental model that I had been holding for several decades, dating back to my childhood. 

My father, after being an employee for all his life, realized his dream of being an entrepreneur in his forties.  He opened a Chinese restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was his one and only attempt at building a business. The restaurant went bankrupt within two years.  Afterward, he went back to working for someone else.  But not before he suffered from insomnia and ulcers.  My mother told me that after the bankruptcy, my father was never the same. A few years later, he was diagnosed with cancer.  Within 6 years of declaring bankruptcy, he was dead at the age of 51. 

It's all so obvious now. 

Story What I know is that I can change the stories that I tell myself.  I'm writing a new story about failure–about how I can't know ahead of time how the experiment will turn out, but that I can change how I interpret the results and what it says about myself.  I can take the results and learn from them to point me in the right direction. I can see failure as one step in a successful journey. Photo by stevendepoto.

I became an entrepreneur in part to follow my own path. And yet, if it is truly my path, and not someone else's, I'll need to turn off the autopilot, leave the highway, and navigate from a new inner compass.

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  1. Katherine on July 5, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I just wanted to say thank you, Carol, for sharing the honesty and heart of this post… it resonated deeply with me. Take care of yourself as you continue the journey.

  2. Jonathan Vaudreuil on July 5, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    If there’s one thing I understand, it’s failure. My entire career is full of failures – both small stumbles and a few epic flops.

    I’ve met many people who’ve endured a number of failures as well.

    The one thing that seems to help me and others stay sane through failures is looking at each failure as a story. Which is interesting, since you’re all about stories. Honestly, I love telling people about the few huge epic failures I’ve had in my life. They’re such great stories. There is so much to learn in them. Some are funny and others are… well, things go horribly wrong and I come out alive.

    At the end of the day I can live with how things turned out. I did what I wanted, gave it my all, and went on an adventure. A lot of people never have that kind of adventure, and that’s one thing I will always have no matter what I do for the rest of my life.

  3. carolross on July 5, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Katherine–thanks for reading and your kind words. I’m glad it resonated with you.

    Jonathan–love your attitude about failure and how each failure is a story. I agree that there is so much to learn from our failures–for us and for others. Thanks for your support.

  4. sleep on December 29, 2011 at 12:55 am

    Failing does not mean the end. It is the beginning of success. Without failing, you will never know what works and what doesn’t. Good luck with your business!

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