Five years after I started my first business as a solopreneur, I had to close it down. It was 2001. If I hadn’t closed it, the bank would have. The way I saw it was my business had failed; I had failed; I was a failure. A complete failure. That was how I thought about it and about myself. It happens, I know. But it just hadn’t happened to me. The floor fell away from under me.
There was a story I’d read about a missionary to a previously undiscovered tribe. He described teaching them a task, which they kept getting wrong. At that point they would fall about laughing. The short story was the discovery of a people with no apparent concept of failure – at least from his perspective. The lesson I didn’t get then is that our perspective is everything. I had gone all in on my business and lost. That little story of the tribe came back to me, like a lifebuoy, when I most needed it. It was the seed that took root in me, ready, long before disaster had struck and it was a seed that eventually brought me back to life, to see things differently. To see failure differently. And in that process, failure itself changed its face.
For a few years afterwards I remained suspended between the verb and the noun – the act of failing and the identity of failure. After the grieving process was eventually spent and I changed paths, I was blissfully unaware of this ongoing suspended state. When I reflect back, there were clues, but I was asleep to them. I was still too numb. That was until the time I stepped back up to the plate, with a change management role as Director of a community-based charity in central London. My starting point is best described as a ball of wool. I couldn’t find the end to tug on. And something was paralysing me from moving forward.
At that point on my path I had learned to ask for help. I’d felt so utterly humiliated and so much shame from losing my business, that asking for help was nothing by comparison. Through a series of connections I ended up with the gift of six mentor sessions with a treasure of man called Alan. With fascination at his level of mastery, with a verbal sleight of hand, I uncovered my greatest wound from losing my business, as if all by myself. I saw so painfully in that moment that I had no confidence in my own judgement. The curtain fell away and the very act of bringing that to light was as easy as whispering into the night wind – and it was gone. It was a cork held underwater. Just like that. I felt weightless. I bobbed to the surface of my own life. It was transcendant.
The seed of seeing things differently sent out her roots. Over the next four years I went on to raise around £5m in investment and fundraising. As I was to learn, there are no transforming moments without first walking the road. Suddenly the weight of my experience and the confidence in my ability to deliver converged. At times everything was extraordinarily uncomfortable. Authoring change in order for an organisation to remain in existance, often is. Organisationally speaking, it was such a growing edge – but I grew with it.
Naturally we grow and develop as people and I truly see now that the decisions and the choices we make, where thought and debate are involved, are certainly made to the very best of our capability and our seeing. This should make us kinder to ourselves when we reflect back on “where it all went wrong” – but it so often doesn’t.
But it was those sessions that altered the course of my life and that of the charity. It was where I changed the way I saw failure – and myself. There’s an inspirational book called “Quantum Creativity” by Amit Goswami, which talks in depth on the subject – but I experienced a quantum shift in thinking that was so transformative, it felt like all those years I felt I’d lost by failing, were redeemed. It propelled me effortlessly through all the blocks of my own self.
So what can I share with you about how to think about failure? I love how Jason da Silva puts it in several of his videos – “There is the earth’s biosphere and then there is a biosphere that exists above that – one of ideas.” Necessarily personal, yet by no means exhaustive, here are the ideas on failure and how to think about it that I stumbled upon.
- Failure’s not personal – don’t make it your badge and emblem. It can make you quite self-obsessed. Instead choose to see it as consciousness exploring itself. Think of your consicousness, if you will, as your inner five year old looking at a big red button with “DO NOT PRESS” etched into it and wondering what will happen if it’s pressed. Treat failure as another form of play, of exploring. Everything is one big experiment after all.
- Failure doesn’t matter. So this might be a hard one to read. I lost everything in that moment of losing my business. While “everything” is relative, when I opened my eyes the next morning, I noticed I was breathing, in and out, in and out. The worst had happended and here I was breathing in and out. What ensued was a certain kind of hell, but in that moment of serenity, I knew in my core everything would be alright if I just kept breathing. Failure really doesn’t matter. Breathing really does. it’s all relative. Keep some perspective.
- Failing is a creative process. Yes – you heard me. It’s deeply creative. Failure is often tangible but look at what you have created as a result of your decisions nevertheless. Instead of shame, determine to master better decision-making while acknowleging your power as a creator. But also, in acknowlging any residual scars choose to see the beauty – choose to see that you are still here – and that means you still have work to do – so happily get to it*. (*If you’re burnt out ignore this last bit and give yourself some deep deep rest, recovery, love and nourishing food. It can be such a tough place to be – but you’ll be more than ok. You will.)
- Fail quickly and finish well. Don’t hold on to something that is clearly not working. If you are full of faith and energy and excitement then absolutely keep going – you’ve just hit a challenge. If you’re really on your path, nothing is going to stop you moving past those blocks. This is really speaking to those who know it’s time to let go. I was brought up with the story “Never ever quit” – but sometimes our stories do more to harm us than to serve us. If you stop for a moment and drop inside, you’ll know the difference. That day at the bank I only had one option in front of me. But there is such power in nevertheless choosing that option and acting on it. Close your business if you have to rather than wait for foreclosure. Change jobs, resrutructure projects – wherever you know things have to change or finish. When they do, change or finish well and move on.
- Have a Yardstick of Disaster to hand. Most people have walked through the fire in some way or other. For me it was getting horribly burned at the age of 2 and having a ski accident at 32. It’s not a competition – just pick a couple of things – they don’t have to be as extreme. But when you find yourself in a situation that is literally or metaphorically waking you at night with a tight chest thinking “Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck what do I do” – for me I ask myself “Is anyone burned? Has anyone broken their neck?” The anwser has since been “no” and so I remove the emotional charge from the stress of a situation by saying outloud “This is not a disaster.” Seriously – try it – it calms you down – provided you’re not addicted to the chemical rush of the drama.
- Purge. As Oprah said “Failure is a stripping away of the inessential”. This is something I re-learned from Ayahuasca this summer in Peru (more on that another time) but it really is all about the purge – the emotional as well as the physical – as anything we focus on long enough, we embody and that can result in sickness or disease of some kind if the subject is a negative one. It’s a necessary season of pruning, just as we observe in the rest of nature. Doing something like yoga or developing a daily meditation or gratitude practice will help you expel the emotion held in the body during times of stress, trial or unhappiness. If that’s not something on your horizon then I simply recommend “The F**k It Way” – a tremendous book. The link to my favourite meditationof theirs is here. To the soothing tomes of “breath in strength, breath out bullshit” your day will be transformed!
- Failure is part of the journey, a truly human experience. It’s rare that its result is so final there is no moving forward from it. Failure is simply that necessary preceding chapter that drives the writing of our individual and collective lives forward to the next exciting chapter. While our education system and work culture still waves the flag for being right and being the best, a sea change is needed. Considering how badly and how often we speak to ourselves in that inner voice of shame and criticism – it’s time to answer back. We are worth more than that voice suggests and there is so much more worth to see if we will tilt our view just a little. See your life as an wonderful experiment and actively embrace being wrong in order to grow. Perhaps to even transcend.
Failing and coming through the other side is like having a great friendship that is untested until you have your first major argument. If you get past that, you have something much stronger. Carol Dwek said of failure “it is the unmasking of our deficiencies.” In having a healthy sense of those deficiencies and of who you are in the aftermath of failure enables you to better surround yourself with complementary skills whilst embracing your own infallibility. But only if you see it as a postive, as a teacher, as a friend, as a gift.
There is epithet across social media platforms “You learn more from your failures than your successes.” I just don’t think this is necessarily true. Firstly, it is never in the quantity of learning per sae. Learning “more” doesn’t translate to deeper or transformative. After all – we are bombarded daily with more information we could possibly handle; rather I argue it is the quality of what we learn – and how we apply that learning.
Why should we feel weighed down by the bravery of trying and it not working? The road to seeing my failing and my failure differently has been deeply transformative, the impact of which has gone way beyond me alone. As Max Planck said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” May those changes be both inspired and inspiring. Some say everything looks different in the morning. Why wait til then?