By Phil Preston
So what would you say if you could meet the 16 year old version of yourself?
This is such an overwhelming question that you probably can’t answer in one sitting. You would want to tell yourself everything you have learnt in the last X number of years since. You would warn yourself against all the mistakes you have made and tell yourself not to worry about things that don’t matter.
This was the first question I asked myself when I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the 2015 Luminosity Youth Summit this year. It was such an honour to share the stage with leaders and entrepreneurs like Andrew Morello, Rebekah Campbell, Maz Compton, Alison Langdon and Kurt Fearnely among others (check out the wrap up video here).
I only had 45 minutes so it had to be quick. I was extremely lucky to have a well experienced co-founder (Duncan Amos) and very wise Business Angel (Peter Walsh) to syphon wisdom from whenever needed. We managed to build a creative organisation filled with a great team that allows us to do the things that we love. But I believe that none of this would have happened without the approach and mindset that we all share. So I thought if there was one thing that mattered more than anything, in business and in life, it is how you think – about yourself, your customers, your problems and everyone around you.
Changing your Perspective of Failure
Like most things in life, the most important part is getting your mindset right – especially when it comes to failure. If you look at all of the most famous examples – like Michael Jordan being kicked out of his basketball team as a kid to go on to become one of the greatest players in the history of the world. Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Oprah – the list goes on with the same story centred around how you deal with failure. Having an iron clad conviction, turning failure into success, reaching for something bigger. Each time the moral of the story is the same. It all seems like you need to have a massive failure in order to have massive success.
One of my favourite authors James Altucher provides another layer to this story. He believes that as a society we are coming dangerously close to being obsessed with the failure story. It’s almost glamorising failure like we need to seek it out and beat it down to prove our resilience and carry a scar. The story is becoming more about the failure and the success and less about what happens in between. What is missing here, and this is what James Altucher is really saying, is that our approach and the way we think about failure is what makes the difference.
We need to change the way we think and feel in order to extract value from failure. What Michael Jordan learnt from being kicked out of the team is more important than the failure itself. Whatever he learnt was what he put into action to become one of the greatest ever. And it wasn’t just one thing or one failure. His approach to failure is what turned so many failures into so many lessons and ultimately success.
Getting your mindset about failure right is a challenge in itself but is the groundwork that allows the most successful people to turn tragedy and adversity in success. So mindset is the first ingredient. But no success ever comes without action. A great idea is just an electrical impulse in the brain – action makes it real. So exactly how do we change our mindset?
Firstly we need to understand that failure is just an outcome – nothing more. There is no success without failure and vice versa. This is all about how we convert one into the other. Just like the cancer researcher conducts thousands of experiments, we still don’t have a definitive cure for cancer. So have they failed? A scientist starts with a question, forms a hypothesis, conducts an experiment and then looks at the result. The word failure does not come into the equation at any point. But we do know an order of magnitude more about cancer than we did 10 years ago. This is because the scientist will look at the results objectively and ask “why?”. Failure is just an outcome but failures only cost us when we fail to ask “why?”. Asking questions is the key to learning from failure and extracting value.
So looking at everything we do like an experiment, in business especially, is vital part to changing the way we think. In our business, every time we make a new product we test it. We form experiments and each time we learn from it. Our experiments match up with our goals to create products that improve our customer’s businesses, reduce time and complexity and increase profit. If the results don’t meet up with our values and goals then we redesign and test again. If they do our product, and therefore our customer, improve in value.
Sounds simple enough! But is that it’s not simple because the truth behind the “why?’ is more elusive than you think. One of the coolest people I have ever heard speak at TED is Ricardo Semler. This guy is an amazing thinker, pushes boundaries, breaks new ground and has probably failed heaps in his lifetime. He puts it most eloquently when he says “always ask yourself 3 whys”.
The reason you need to ask three whys is because failure is so emotional that the first answer you give will most likely be superficial, emotional and unhelpful. If you think about most people in a business situation where something hasn’t worked out, you ask why and the answer will almost always involve someone else’s actions being blamed for the failure. What is more troubling is that most of us do this to ourselves. Out of all the people in your life that lie to you, tell you that you will fail and that you are a failure – the one that tells you this most often is probably YOU.
So getting beneath the first couple of layers of emotion is the point behind asking the 3 whys. After the first why you will have an emotional and ego based answer, the second why will be more honest and the by the third why you will have a factual and honest, but most likely painful answer. The reason we never ask this many whys is because it is easier not to and because the truth usually hurts more than blaming someone else – especially when it comes to failure.
It’s Not About You
Just to make the whole thing infinitely more complex, getting your mindset right is only just the start – what about everyone else around you? This is where fear of failure comes into the equation. You can deal with your own fear and get motivated about succeeding out of your failure until you are as fearless as Superman/Superwoman. But if your team, friends, family and everyone else around you thinks you are jumping off a cliff – they won’t support you. Because nothing amazing is ever achieved by a single person this becomes a hindrance. This is another important layer that doesn’t get discussed.
Fear of failure is a completely learned practice that gets drummed into us from birth. We are constantly taught a dichotomy about opposite things where one is desirable and the other is not. Success and failure, good and bad, win and lose, up and down, life and death, pleasure and pain. Because we have a natural aversion to pain we actively idolise success over failure. We count errors in sport, celebrate the winner and when we get too many answers wrong in school we get an F. But in all of these stories about success we don’t hear about all the failure that went down behind the scenes. When we see an amazing picture taken by a photographer, we don’t see the 500 dud images they took to make that one image. When we saw Michael Jordan hit a 3 pointer we don’t see the 10,000 failed shots he took in countless hours of practice. What we also don’t see is all the people that supported them to get them there – the team, family, friends, customers, advisors…
If you look at fear of failure in its most extreme form it is a diagnosable psychological condition – Atychiphobia. Reading between the lines you will find that one of the effects of reasoning in a person with Atychiphobia is that they should not even try anything new in order to save face and “try to protect a sense of dignity by avoiding failure”. So what this says to me is that fear of failure itself is linked to dignity which is an emotional situation. People just don’t want to be seen to fail or to be associated with failure in any way shape or form – for the sake of dignity.
And you can see this start to rear its head in the way people around you may act. Naysayers, giving up, finger pointing, ego tripping, tall poppy syndrome – all of these things can spring from a fear of failure that is almost like a standard reaction in our society. And most of it is linked to emotion.
Dealing with your approach is important but success isn’t about just one person which is the way it looks in most stories. The approach of everyone around us really is the hardest part of the equation. Dealing with it starts with acknowledging it. It’s not about ignoring the naysayers but starts with understanding why people react the way they do – it starts with compassion. Like we always say “a rising tide lifts all boats”. The power of one is nothing compared with power of many that are all thinking beyond failure.