The writer speaks on why failure is stigmatized and advocates the importance of embracing one’s failures
I saw a post on LinkedIn a few minutes ago that read, ‘failure is an event, not a person’. It made me wonder why failure is such an orphan. No one, just no one, wants to own failure. It is everyone else’s baby, therefore nobody’s baby! I don’t think the world had obsessed with failure so much before the era of internet startups. Neither as a teenager nor as an adult was it ever a Damocles sword, hanging over my head, threatening to slit my throat! It entered my life when I started mentoring entrepreneurs and their startups. And for the next 13 years, it kind of remained like the shadow of holocaust in my life. Not because failure worries me, but because it worried my mentees so. In fact, they signed up for mentorship as a risk-mitigation strategy – the biggest risk being failure!
Look at all the loaded statements in the startup world. Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward (John Maxwell). Failing is an option. Failure and invention are inseparable twins (Elon Musk). I have not failed. I’ve found 10000 ways that won’t work (Thomas Edison). A single defeat is not final defeat (Fitzgerald). Celebrate success but heed lessons of failure (Bill Gates). Man is not made for defeat (Ernest Hemingway). Failure is the end only if you decide to stop (Richard Branson). It doesn’t matter how many times you have failed. You only have to be right once (Mark Cuban). My best success came on the heels of failure (Jeff Bezos). Making your mark in the world…. comes with plenty of failure along the way (Barbara Corcoran). My favorites are: There is no such thing as failure. Only results (Albert Einstein). Get to a place where your failures are just yours, then they get a lot less scary (Gary Vaynerchuk).
I particularly love Vaynerchuk’s quote because it nudges you to take ownership of failure as much as you do, success. I have sat across many investor court martials of entrepreneurs where the latter is hell-bent on deflecting failure to the whole world but him. He has a plethora of excuses. You didn’t give me money when I needed it. The customer is an idiot. The agenda of my staff is not aligned to my company’s vision. Our partners let us down. Technology became obsolete. Competitors stole my source code. God forbid if someone dares stop him in his tracks with the question: where were you when all this was happening? Who me? I was busy running the company!!!
Since the beginning of mankind, every civilization has worshipped success but no civilization has disowned failure as much as the internet economies. Once upon a time, it was par for the course that when you set out to do something new, there was an equal probability of success and failure. There was also tacit understanding that the more you do things right, the more you reduce the probability of failure.
But internet made entrepreneurs demi-gods who could not have feet of clay. I remember a well-known entrepreneur said to me after his company had collapsed: I didn’t fail. My company did. So in all innocence I asked him, 3 years ago when you were receiving the Best Startup of the Year award, I don’t remember you saying, I didn’t succeed, my company did!
Failure is the antonym of success. Strangely, all dictionaries define failure as not succeeding. It’s a logical fallacy to define a term by way of its opposite. My definition of failure would be, not being able to do what I set out to do. And sure enough, this makes me the owner of my failure. I am not operating in a vacuum, right, therefore there are ambient influences on my decision that make me vulnerable to failure. BUT THOSE FAILURES ARE MINE. Not to be laid down at someone else’s door.
In India, given that we live in an intrusive society, failure is most stigmatised because what will the neighbours say! What if people we know point fingers at my husband and say, his company shut down, he is a failure! What if they avoid socialising with us as if we have Corona?
Branson said, face failure head-on. If you live so cautiously that you don’t fail, you have failed by default. A cliché of the high seas is a ship was not built to stay in the harbour. Both are saying, live life as it should be lived, taking the highs and lows in your stride. In other words, you win some, you lose some but don’t glorify what you won by shoving what you lost under the carpet. I will share a very personal story here that makes my point.
I am a seasoned mountain climber now, but ten years ago, when I was on my third climb, I hung out at a climbers’ café in Kathmandu. Here every dude (and dudette) was tall, tanned, broad-shouldered and sinewy. I was listening to their stories of various climbs with abject wonderment and at some point, felt compelled to open my mouth, even though I had nothing to contribute. I said, I love climbing but I hate what the sun does to my skin, see (and I put both my arms in front of me) the brown patches? I used to love my skin, but not any more. One dude walked up to me, took both my outstretched arms and said, these brown patches mean that the mountains like you. They will never let you climb if they don’t like you. Stop whining, woman, and wear them like a badge of honour! Oh yes, since then not a word about my skin.
You can wear failure like a badge of honour and say, they are mine!