It’s rumored that there’s a venture capital firm in California that will only invest in you if you’ve gone bankrupt at least twice. The idea is that once you’ve experienced that humiliating low and are still willing to try again, you’re much more likely to have the passion, the experience, and the lessons to succeed.
Engineers Without Borders, Canada, which creates engineering solutions to international development problems, too, believes in rewarding failure. Every year, in addition to its annual report, the organization publishes a “failure report.” “I only let the best failures into the report,” the editor Ashley Good told the New York Times. “The examples that are published show people who are taking risks to be innovative.”
There’s even a conference dedicated to failure. As noted on its website, “FailCon is a one-day conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers, and designers to study their own and others’ failures and prepare for success.” Their speakers, from Vinod Khosla to David Pogue, aren’t typically people you’d associate with the word “failure.”
I’m no stranger to failure myself. Even before I became a writer and embraced daily rejection and weekly failure as a way of life, I had, after being an ace student all through my school years, failed miserably in my first year of college and almost dropped out. I didn’t celebrate it at the time, but perhaps I should have because that failure is what led me to abandoning the idea of being a software engineer with a corner office and embracing the dream of being a writer instead. That failure saved me from years of being stuck in a dead-end job, high-paying as it may have been, and wasting that time building someone else’s legacy instead of my own.
Early on in my career, dejected by the number of rejections that arrived in my Inbox each week, I joined a group started by a writer friend in which we all competed to reach 100 rejections in one year. Every day, we posted about our latest setbacks and as everyone knows, the only way to get rejected is to get yourself out there, to make an effort, to take a risk. We got rejected frequently, but because of those efforts, those risks, and those challenges, we each managed to find more acceptances and more rewards. That group failed, too—not one of us ever reached the number 100 that year.
So next time you’re passed over for a promotion or that book deal doesn’t pan out or your brilliant business idea just turned out to be a bit too ahead of its time, don’t fret and break out the champagne instead. Here’s why.
1. Sure you’ll celebrate when you make that sale, reach that target income, buy that house. But for every time you’ve made an effort and taken a risk, reward yourself. Celebrate the fact that you stepped outside your comfort zone and did something challenging.
2. My husband and I, whenever we’re stressed or have had a major setback, have this thing we do, which is to blast really loud music on our iPods. Soon, he’s happy and I’m dancing and even though we failed, we failed together. We aspired to do something bigger together. We dared to think beyond our limitations. And that’s more important than whatever it is that we aspired to do.
3. You’d think entrepreneurs who’ve gone bankrupt a couple of times wouldn’t go near another new venture, but those are exactly the kind of people who do, because they’ve learned valuable lessons. Like Thomas Edison, you haven’t failed 10,000 times, you’ve just found 10,000 ways something doesn’t work, and you’ve learnt from your mistakes and are better equipped to see what does.
4. It may not seem like it, but each time you have a setback (or massive failure), you’re that much closer to doing it right the next time. Which may seem impossible when your editor comes back to you for the tenth time saying, “You’re not thinking big enough!” but you’re getting there, trust me. Try again, try harder, try better. You’re closer than you think.
5. You make incredible connections when you’re failing. We tend to think that it’s the successful people, the celebrities, the people in the list of who’s who that have the powerful connections, the meaningful relationships, but ask any of them about their closest friends and alliances, and they’ll tell you about the friend from college who’s now a business partner or the person who lent them money when they were broke who remains their confidant to this day. If you open up and let them, people will help you, introduce you to their colleages and bosses, put in a good word for you, and allow you to sleep on their couch. This doesn’t happen when you’re successful, it only happens when you’re willing to acknowledge your vulnerability and your doubt.
So go ahead and fail a little. Pour the champagne, dance around the house, and allow yourself a manicure. Because even though you’ve failed, it may take only a few more tries until you don’t.