Apparent Failure Focuses the Mind

“If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”

Tallulah Bankhead

The gifts

Probably the two most valuable things that have happened to me as a business person were:

1) Being laid off from a corporate job and having to start a business on my own, forcing the question of how to survive and support a family without a regular salary, benefits, or anything to rely on but myself. I wasn’t very happy about the situation at the time, but it was definitely a gift.

2) My former business partner’s choice to walk off with all our clients, leaving me with the company debt and virtually no business.

Failure

The first disaster effectively created this business, and the second transformed it from something commonplace into something very special by providing a rare opportunity to entirely rethink it, rethink what it meant, and what it could be.

It took a while to realize that I was either going to make it or not, and that the outcome was entirely up to me.

I now understand this as a moment of rebirth, but I remember at the time thinking, “How on earth am I going to make it through this?” It took a while to realize that I was either going to make it or not, and that the outcome was entirely up to me.

“What are the steps I need to take in order to survive?” Those taken, you move on to consider, “What are the steps I need to take in order to succeed?” Then, finally, “What are the steps to make this endeavor prosperous and meaningful for ALL involved?”

There is tremendous creative power in the act of rebuilding from nothing.

There is tremendous creative power in the act of rebuilding from nothing. A truly horrible situation pulled out of me the fortitude and determination required to take action, and it also shepherded the growth and development of our corporate brand philosophy based on truth and supported by our collective hard work.

The story

It’s clear to me now that the story never ends until you die. If what you do in life is going to mean something, you have to keep writing the story with every ounce of your being, and you must do this until the pen falls from your hand and you expire. The more adversity you face in the process, the greater and truer your own authorship. When there is little or no adversity, this allows a state of mind that gives others the rights of authorship, but when everything is against you, you are forced to become the one true author of your own story.

When everything is against you, you are forced to become the one true author of your own story.

If I think about many of the people that did great things in their lives, not a few passed through financial and personal failures at some point. We don’t think about the fact that George Washington was deeply in debt, or that Walt Disney filed for personal bankruptcy because of his animation studio. I always knew the story of my distant uncle Buckminster Fuller‘s financial failure, but I also knew that it was after that that he began his flights of thought, leading ultimately, after years of hard work, to the geodesic dome.

Failure focuses the mind

Hardship, sometimes in the form of utter financial/personal disaster, builds the kind of resilience and forces the kind of creative perseverance that some people, perhaps all people, require in order to do something truly great with their lives.

By contrast, complacency, born out of satisfaction with the way things are—with having other people decide things for you or provide for you—is a true creativity killer.

It is that moment when every safety net is removed, and all you are left with is your own energy, ability and creative effort—that great things are given birth and begin to grow.

Fear creates mediocrity

It is something that can be used by authority figures of all kinds to trap you in roles they would have you play. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear that something is not going to work, fear that there is no other path—this is the power held by others over your life. It seems almost essential that the worst things you can possibly imagine have to happen in order for that fear to be fully tamed—”How much worse could it possibly get?” is a perfect starting point.

‘How much worse could it possibly get?’ is a perfect starting point.

I attribute what I am now and what I expect to become in business and in life to those disastrous situations that have happened to me.

I remember in high school when I was doing an application for a scholarship to Japan, I was asked, “Tell me about your biggest failure.” At the time, I guess I was 16, and I didn’t have a good answer for that question. I think everyone needs to have an answer for that question. It’s the greatest indication of your true character, your ability, and your potential—to know what you did when you failed—what you did when the whole world collapsed around you.

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