'I never lose. I either win or learn.' That quote by Nelson Mandela can inspire us all.
You may have seen that opening quote before, it’s pretty popular. It’s obvious why. There is a whole genre of what you might call failure-porn. Book after book showing that failure is necessary to success in the same way that rain is necessary for a rainbow.
Which is all a big consolation if you’re staring failure in the face. While you’ve also got a suspicion that all this encouraging talk of failure is just trying to sweeten a bitter pill. But turn that quote around.
He’s saying at one level that you shouldn’t be afraid to put it all on the line, because you might win, and if you don’t then you’ll learn from the experience, which makes it more likely you’ll win next time. But look at it from the other end.
He’s saying that if you win you won’t learn. And in that we’d have to say he’s absolutely right.
Isn’t failure fun?! No, it sucks.
Failure hurts. That’s good. If you get your hand too close to the fire you burn it and then it hurts. Good, you just learnt a valuable lesson that you probably won’t repeat. Life lessons: they always hurt, they’re always valuable.
We’re not here to smother you in cotton wool; we’re not here to stop you getting your hand too close to the fire. You won’t learn, none of us does, except by sticking our hand in the fire. We’re here to make sure you learn the right lessons, as you lick your paw thoughtfully.
So, you need to be able to face up to failure. It’s not terminal, unless you let it be. I personally can say with total truth that I learnt more from the two years of folding one of companies than I learnt in the eight years of successfully running it. The lessons stung, burnt, caused me bitter tears and heartache. But if you want a useful pot that doesn’t leak and won’t fall apart you have to put it in the flames.
Stop Telling Yourself Stories
You need to learn the right lessons. And that starts with reacting to the event. What does that mean? The Stoics – we’re big fans of the real Stoics – would say this. That something happens; then we tell ourselves a story about what happened; then we react to that story. Note we don’t react to the facts, we react to the stories we’ve told ourselves. Here’s an example.
You have a meeting with a bank to try to get finance to expand your company. After a big pitch by you then decline. You go away and what do you tell yourself? That you pitched it all wrong, that your idea has no business merit, that you’ve just been kidding yourself about this shiny new expansion plan.
Then you react to that version of events. You get depressed and upset, and start to really doubt your ability to do anything and wonder if you should simply give up and save everyone a lot of heartache.
The actual facts are you didn’t get the funding from this one source. You have no idea really why that is. Maybe they didn’t like your idea. But also maybe they have a quota for the month and they’re up to their limit, or maybe you didn’t meet some arbitrary criteria that you couldn’t know about.
So take from this that you didn’t get the funding from that one bank. Go away, think about what you’re asking for and how you’re asking it, fine-tune your pitch and go to someone else. The world is absolutely awash with money looking for a home. Give someone’s money a home.
Obviously, learning from failure is important, but there’s one thing even more important. And it is embodied in that phrase: Nanakorobi Yaoki. This is Japanese Bushido, the warrior creed and it roughly translates as:
Nanakorobi Yaoki - Seven times down, eight times up.
What does that mean? It means no matter how often you get knocked down, you always get up again, one more time. Nelson Mandela had a variation on that:
‘Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.’
Always, always get back up and get back in the fight. Never lie there feeling sorry, feeling beaten, feeling done, for a moment longer than absolutely vital. You can always get up again, you can always carry on.
Either success or another useful lesson, those are the options waiting for you. So – let’s go! What have you got to fear?