If there is anything I have done consistently well, it is fail. Despite the heartache of unrealized dreams, negative return on financial investment and embarrassment among my peers, each failure has been an opportunity for me to try something new, expand my knowledge base, learn more about my strengths, weaknesses, and interests, and prepare for even greater failures – and successes – in the future.
I once had a business idea that I felt would have a magnanimously positive impact on society. Having just won second place in a business plan competition at a local nonprofit in Philadelphia, I confidently crafted a business plan to articulate the many details of this idea. My goal was to deliver the plan to a successful, and wealthy, individual whose heart I felt was closely aligned to the project.
I took the train to New York and arrived at his office unannounced. I was told that he was not available, so I left the plan in a sealed envelope with the receptionist. Then I waited. And waited. I was devastated when I did not receive a response. As a last resort, I used my last dime to purchase two tickets to a show that fit the theme of the project. I kept one for myself and sent the other to him using overnight delivery. I sat at the show alone, and completely heartbroken, that night.
There are so many things that I did wrong, but I tried – in my own way. But the very worst thing that I did was feel like my life was over when I resigned to the fact that this project, which I felt was a total reflection of my life purpose, was not going to work out. Almost ten years later, I now see that this was not the best path for me, I should not have gotten involved with that person as a matter of self-protection, and that my interests and talents are far more expansive than I realized at the time.
More recently I self-published a children’s book and rented out a space in New York for a book signing. I thoroughly planned and organized everything according to advice provided by just about every article around on how to publish a book and hold a successful promotional event. Nobody came. That’s right – nobody. But this time, I was not devastated. I spent the evening talking to someone who worked there and he is now a very good friend – truly a kindred spirit. I also feel more prepared for my next book signing after this trial run and I know that if no one shows up for that one either I still have the ability to thrive.
Taking risks can be scary and daunting when we think about the possibility of failure. Unfortunately, failure is always a possibility – even when things seem to be going well. Life offers no guarantees, despite thoroughly planning every detail and working extremely hard. So why is it that leaders insist upon taking risks?
Consider the alternative. If we didn’t ever take risks, social and technological progress would be limited and life would be pretty boring. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Every time we fail, we also succeed. We learn something new about ourselves, our work, or our world. Calculated risk-taking leads to innovation, greater understanding, and social and intellectual leverage for future projects.
When you experience an unexpected setback, or a devastating obliteration of everything you have worked for your entire life, remember that this is an opportunity for you to reevaluate your intentions, goals, relationships, and methods. We only fail when we don’t learn from these experiences or when we stop trying. As Curtis Mayfield said, we have to, “keep on keeping on.”