FailCon is a convergence of entrepreneurs who listen to and swap war stories about starting and enduring business failures.
As the day wore on I began to feel that the word "fail" was harsh and, in any case, not quite perfect. If we talk of business failures, I ask 'must we apply the same word to ourselves'? The word "defeat" came to mind. It's still brutal. It means something crashed, hit the ground, that someone or something else came out on top, and that recovery will require great fortitude. But for me defeat feels like 'down for this round', 'down for this game', 'down for this season'. Recoverable.
Several times in my life I've felt utterly defeated over a period of years. I've thought about what giving up means. If not death, then what? Living in a remote but low-pressure location isolated from failure or the shame of failure?
First off, bad things happen everywhere.
Then I thought: let's say I do that. Let's say it's the day after I've got myself ensconced in some near-wilderness. It's not like "they" won. "They" have no idea, and if they do, my responses will be forgotten soon. Plus, some people will then be deprived of whatever value I do bring to the world even if I think it's miniscule. But most importantly, what will I do that next day? Knowing me I'd start over, complete with strategies, because that's what I do. I can't help but survive and thrive. So that means I must put up with the current misery. Shit.
I rallied. I was defeated but I had not failed. I was not entirely the weak link in the cascade of events. In fact, to always write myself off as the cause disregards my fallible humanity and larger forces around me. This is why I deeply appreciate Scott Berkun reminding us of the Fallacy of a Single Failure.
And so I may be defeated today. I do a post-mortem about what I could have done, what I should have recognized, but also noting how I might have been blindsided or inexperienced. Then I repair what I can followed by working on putting such thoughts aside. On those days I give up for the day. I accomplish as much as my sore emotions allow, consult with my inner board of directors, and then take a break. A hike, a chat with friends, a new indie film. Tomorrow I layer on more effort. I learned to take care of myself.
In one of these periods of dismay a drunk friend of a professional acquaintance told me to my face that I should give up. This guy had no idea what he was suggesting. What did he think 'give up' meant? I was later instrumental in that professional acquaintance getting a good job. Over lunch (that he bought) I asked for, and received, an apology. Who's going to tell me I have no value and that I should give up?
"Failure is only failure if you don't get back up" Ben Huh, FailCon 2012. Sounds like a defeat to me.
Personally, I think that first bracing smack in the face is exhilarating. The first day or so afterwards is precious. Not that I enjoy injury but the sharper the pain the more vividly displayed are your incorrect knowledge and assumptions. Your market has just been corrected. The new reality is here. Savor the release. I spend those sparkly moments examining every super-charged facet and feel the effects, checking on how I'm responding. However...
"Be certain that you are not suffering over your suffering." (The Book of Runes, Ralph Blum, St. Martin's Press, 1982) I read this as saying 'Save your energy for the issues, including the facts of your trauma and the crisis at hand. Don't waste energy on melodrama, languishing in your misery.' Care for emotions as you go and then also when the crisis has subsided.
I counsel suffering friends to not shove the pain of these events aside, to stay in the moment. Anguish festers and compounds itself. This is an opportunity to grow, to accept responsibility for your own maturing, to become a better person for your own happiness and the well-being of others. Well, that's what I say anyway.
"When times are good, some of your character shows. When times are bad, all your character shows." This is a "Chinese" proverb I cannot re-locate since I first spotted it in a 1979 Farmer's Almanac. This one bon mot has been a guiding light through my adult life. Message: 'Behave yourself while you deal with your issues'. Similarly, it's also best to mind your character when times are extra good.
Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre spoke of being not superhuman but a super human, the chairman of emotion and meaning. A man after my very own heart. He spoke of Maslow (whose hierarchy of needs he simplified to 'survive, succeed, transform') and Frankl, two psychologists who profoundly influenced me.
Ben Blank's (Intuit's Innovation Catalysts team) said things about recovering from professional defeat and instilling sustainable practices that I believe and promote. I particularly soaked up these gems:
My name is Susan, and I am a baby.
During his Ferris Bueller days Matthew Broderick did a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he dressed as a baby. Other passengers on the New York subway mocked him. I remember John Belushi. “Look at the BAY-bee!” he said. Mr. Broderick’s baby answers, “Well, yes I am a baby…”
Mr. Broderick has since revisited the theme: here he is, avec diapers and bonnet, with the much-missed Phil Hartman as a Fairy. As in a Tooth Fairy-like fairy.
Actually, Saturday Night Live makes a point more about social perceptions and diversity which I leave aside because humor is best left unexplained.
Besides, I’m serious here. I don’t mean to say I am an infant. Sure, I’m intelligent like an infant, but I have years of experience racked up that supplement wisdom I was gifted with. I possess a certain kind of analytical ability and persuasiveness. Yeah, sure, I’m not rich. Shut up.
I did not come to the realization that I am a baby on my own. I did know that I have a tender heart that requires some protection and nourishment. It was, however, a perceptive man of my acquaintance, someone whose father was an obstetrician and came from a family of eight siblings who gave my traits a persona. At first I recoiled, as though I had been called a bad name.
He gently asked me, “What do babies do?”
“They laugh, they cry, they play and learn by wandering away and putting stuff in their mouths. Also - sleep a lot, wipe food all over themselves, delight in a rubber duckie, and roll around on their bottoms.”
I immediately understood.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean I think less of myself. I am not a victim to be pitied. I am not socially or personally inferior. I simply recognize a facet of myself which helps me understand certain behaviors and thoughts.
Like babies, I do gutsy, sometimes even ill-advised things, like heading out to open territory without telling someone where I’m going. I grieve mightily when disappointed especially with myself, am betrayed by those I thought I could trust, or suffer a wounding loss. I also feel the pain of those who are hurt. Buffering helps.
I enjoy experiencing other realities – my imagination and natural curiosity lead to plenty of wonder. I enjoy getting “lost” and returning to my reality having been away. I require stimulation. Cooped up motionless in a small, dark, silent office cube = a coffin.
So why announce this in public? Why not jot these thoughts in my Moleskin?
Here’s why. Again and again startups are advised to have someone on board who expands the group’s creative thinking; a non-engineer, a non-MBA. Startups are told to expect things to be messy (read: inefficient), to involve all ideas, to expect unexpected outcomes, to ask the right questions and investigate, and to roll with the reality checks, to pivot and refine accordingly and rapidly.
Startups need Babies. Frankly, all companies need Babies.
This happens all the time. People ask me if I’ve run across some big thing that people sorely need. Never mind that if I knew that I’d already be rich.
I understand why they ask. I bill myself as an explorer in the magnetic field between people and everything else, usually high technology or delivery thereof. But the way it works is that I’m not walking around with a handful of packaged, unused ideas.
I’ve found plenty of friction in the flows of life. Just – we expect to do some crunching; some deeper diving, some sanity checking, some big-time brainstorming. Idea refinement. Even in this Age of Agility, R&D still happens in contexts for optimal results.
Here’s a tip. Turn the entrepreneurial-idea machine off sometimes and just listen to people ramble about their lives. Listen to them talk about their pains and their aspirations. Listen for things to build on, including realms that seem outside your your usual domain. Collect them, trade them, write them down, draw them, sing them, cook them, sleep on them. If you don’t you might not be serious about landing on good ideas. You never know where an idea comes from. There’s time to focus on diving deeper later, and you’ll be better acquainted with your idea for eventually describing it to investors.
Experience researcher in high tech, healthcare, and built environments with an anthropology provenance.