In his book Fueled by Failure, entrepreneur and philanthropist Jeremy Bloom shows readers how rebound and reprogram themselves after defeat and how to use the lessons from those failures to achieve winning results. In this edited excerpt, the author explains why acknowledging and accepting your failures can make you a stronger and more successful business owner.
Webster’s dictionary defines failure as “the nonperformance of an assigned or expected action” or “a falling short of one’s goals.” I consider the first definition to apply to the short-term failures we all experience often when trying to do something, such as missing a sales quota for the quarter. The second definition, however, has far greater impact on us since our goals can be very closely tied to who we are as individuals.
But the definition of failure varies greatly among people—it’s a very personal thing, and each person defines their own idea of success and failure.
Whatever that definition is for you, when you lose, you’ll need time and space to put it into proper perspective.
And there are actually plenty of ways to fail. According to management, strategy, and leadership professor Sydney Finkelstein of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, while there may be only a limited number of ways in which to succeed, there are many ways to fail. “Having a bad idea, not executing well, not having the courage to change or adapt, not building the right team, or making bad decisions are among so many possible ways in which we can fail,” Finkelstein says. Another way of failing: not even trying.
There are even more typical, tangible ways that we fail that are defined by the world around us. “The consequences of failure in a company are big. You can lose your [livelihood], for one,” Finkelstein explains. But a lot of things in life are hard—they might even seem insurmountable, especially if you’ve already experienced a setback or failure. “Many people become scared of failure and not only do not want to embrace it but often stop putting themselves out there,” says Finkelstein. “Since we all have a desire to feel good about ourselves, when we fail at something and don’t feel good about ourselves, we become less confident and may fail to try new things or take bigger risks.”
The bottom line: Failure builds. Failure can lead to more failure. That is, unless you learn to use each failure to your advantage, to let it fuel your future success.
The traditional thinking is, the more time and money that was invested to start a company, the longer it can take an entrepreneur to assess what went wrong and process the failure. And while that’s been true in many cases and many entrepreneurs take a much-needed break to refuel before getting back in the game, others are able to rebound more quickly. At some point, however, you need to put your failure aside and get back in the game.
Being able to admit you failed at something is a liberating experience. Yet one of the hardest things to say is “I failed.” But by admitting it, you’ve literally set yourself free of the weight of it.
The real reason admitting failure is so hard? It makes us feel vulnerable. Saying “I failed” means dropping your guard and opening yourself up to criticism or self-deprecation. It also may mean giving up on a goal or a dream because you feel like you’ve let down your family, friends, colleagues, or fans.
If admitting failure makes you uncomfortable, actually embracing it can be nearly impossible. We learn from an early age that failure is bad, so why would we want to embrace it?
First, it’s important to understand that you can embrace failure in a negative or a positive way. There are many people who see embracing failure as negative or a sign of weakness. They’ll try to keep their failures hidden like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. They believe that by embracing failure, they’re giving up, giving in, or setting up much lower standards.
Defining yourself as a failure is another negative way of embracing it. It’s an excuse to say, “I can’t do it,” “I give up,” or “Why bother? I won’t succeed anyway.” What people who see failure this way don’t recognize is that sometimes you need to go back to the base of the mountain to start climbing again.
Embracing failure positively requires a leap of faith, but once you jump over the hurdle, you’ll understand that fearing failure only holds you back from realizing your full potential. Eric Roza, CEO of Datalogix, says that at his company, the corporate culture practically encourages people to acknowledge their failures or errors at monthly company meetings via a “Stay Humble, Keep Improving” moment.
“By acknowledging it as a group, we can all fail and that’s OK,” Roza says. By recognizing that everyone fails, the people at Datalogix are able to embrace it as a regular part of life. Since most of what we learn is from trial and error, beginning when we fall down again and again trying to walk, it’s only natural to recognize that everyone fails … and often.
Here are five ways embracing failure can work for you:
1. We learn some of our best lessons through failure.
2. Failure inspires us. If we look at it properly and don’t allow it to define us, failure can be a great source of motivation.
3. Failure teaches us humility. We feel humble after losing and recognize that we are indeed human.
4. Embracing failure allows us to take more risks. Once we come to terms with having failed and survived, we can take greater risks.
5. Failure makes success taste even better. We have a better appreciation of success having failed a few times on the way up the ladder.
“Once you’ve embraced failure, you no longer fear it,” Roza says.
Finkelstein sums it up pretty simply: “That’s the point of embracing failure in a positive way … it allows you to move past the negatives and the disappointments and change your mindset from ‘failure is bad’ to ‘failure can be good and here’s how to make it a tool for you.’ ”
If you don’t constructively embrace failure in a healthy way, you’ll get stuck and won’t allow yourself to accomplish what you could. And that would be the worst outcome of all.