I remember talking with my editor about the concept I had for this book. I told her “I want to write a book about failure, because…well….I’m just so good at it.”
She said it sounded like a great idea and waited for the details. I regaled her with tales of business woe, recounting a dozen of my total un-successes. When I had finished, she looked at me and said “OK. So the idea is, you’ll tell these stories, and at the end of each one you’ll talk about what you learned?”
To which I replied, “No. Not every failure had a lesson.”
Then she asked “OK. So then you will just tell all your stories of failure and at the end of the book talk about how you overcame the obstacles and succeeded anyway?”
To which I again replied, “Not exactly. This book is going to be about the very nature of failure. The unsugarcoated true story. Not every failure gives you the tools you need to succeed. And they certainly don’t all have happy endings.”
She looked confused. We’ve worked together for a year now writing business books to help people succeed, and yet here I was proposing a book that didn’t appear to be useful, imparting neither actionable information or motivation. What was the point? Why just talk about my failures? What good were failures without diving into the lessons they taught?
It’s not that I don’t want to talk about the lessons, it’s that I want to talk about just one. That failure is very real and it sucks and sometimes there isn’t really a lesson except the one that says “This is life. Keep going anyway.”
This book does end up being a message of hope, but the approach is from the inside where often no hope exists. The fact is, I did endure through the failure and ended up much better for it on the other side, but I don’t want that to be the main point of this book. That story has already been told a million times.
I want this book to unveil the scary truth about failure.
Not every failure has a lesson. Not every failure can be turned around. Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail. Sometimes you can be the cleverest, most apt person for the job, and still fall short. Sometimes, things just suck for no reason.
I don’t tell you that to be a Debbie Downer. I am not trying to discourage you (despite the fact that I call this book a “Self Hurt” book). Rather, I'm trying to change the narrative of failure and business.
Not too long ago I had the pleasure of attending yet another business conference with phenomenally successful speakers. Much like others I had attended, the speakers’ messages were full of motivation and a little strategy. They told tales of how they had overcome adversity, stuck to the plan of success and eventually, due to hard work and pure stamina, made it out on top.
This particular event had some really powerful speakers. These were guys I definitely looked up to and two of them got on stage at different times and talked about something they both referred to as “grit.” This recurring theme of grit had me fascinated. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain how they applied grit in their daily lives. One of the speakers spoke of adversity and putting in 14-hour days. While that takes some fortitude, I couldn’t really see how it took grit to put in long hours. Every business owner I’ve ever known puts in hours like that at some point. When you run your own business, work hours aren’t a thing you keep track of really; you just do what needs to be done.
The other speaker illustrated grit with his experiences with a personal trainer he brought in to whip him into shape, physically and mentally. Having to do outrageous things like swim in freezing cold water had been the catalyst for his grit, he said.
While certainly these types of hard-core self-inflicted training sessions take commitment, I still couldn’t see it as grit. There was too much glory in it.
As I paid more attention to the presentations, I realized that the speakers were glossing over any failures they had endured in the dark, so to speak. They didn’t dwell much at all on the truly stupid mistakes they had made, or when they had done everything perfectly but things still didn’t work out.
Does that mean these guys were lucky and don’t know what failure truly means? Could it be they had avoided the level of adversity I had found?
One guy I am referring to sold over $500 million in product last year and the other is a billionaire. Yeah….billionaire. With a capital B.
There is no freakin way these guys didn’t hit some of the biggest walls of adversity known to man. They have likely failed in bigger ways than we can even imagine. Why they didn’t share the real stories of how they discovered their grit, I don’t know.
Or maybe I do know. In this industry there’s a lot of ego, and it’s very rare that anyone admits to real failure. I mean, some do. But those are typically the guys with super tragic Hollywoodesque stories of drug abuse or tragedy all turned around. Regular old, shitty, sucky, day-ruining failure, we just don’t hear much about.
And that is why my editor had the reaction she had. It wasn’t because she “didn’t get it.” It was because she’s just not used to the conversation. No one is. It’s about time we started having a new conversation. A real one.
A conversation about failure that will motivate you (if he can do it, so can I) but also to show you one important thing: You Are Not Alone!
The book will be out this year, summer I hope. And in the meantime we'll be examining the topic of failure in the blog. If you have tales about failure to tell, please do. You can submit them to email@example.com.