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Is Failure Life’s Greatest Teacher?

As business people and entrepreneurs, most of us don’t like failure in general, and largely feel that failure is bad. True entrepreneurs, however, often tout great failure in the past as the driving force behind their current success. They’ve looked at their past objectively, dispassionately, and impersonally, and taken strong lessons from the failures and used the knowledge to fuel success. A very healthy approach, but one that is often difficult to adopt in other circumstances. If you’re not the boss, continual and ongoing failure in your work will not likely lead to a long career, unless you work at a Wall St. bank!

Failure is a terrific teacher. It shows you when you should have zigged when you zagged. And often, the ultimate failure of a business enterprise is not caused by any single event or decision – its usually a cascade of seemingly small, inconsequential decisions and actions that take you down a path leading ultimately to collapse. If you could review any one of those decisions separately and out of context, you’d be hard pressed to find logical fault with it, taking into account it’s isolation and the information available at the time. But couple it with incomplete or inaccurate information that fills in or corrects later, and couple that with other seemingly innocuous decisions, and when you step back you can see a pattern developing. You can almost watch the slide in the wrong direction, but at the time you can’t see it and are powerless to stop it.

Someone smarter than I once said, “it’s not what knocks you down, it’s how you handle getting back up that shows your true character.” I firmly believe that to be true, being an optimist, and believe that this kind of thinking is what powers the entrepreneurial spirit that makes this great country what it is. No matter what obstacles people put in your way, no matter how many times they knock you down, if you just get up, brush off, restore your dignity, regroup and come out swinging with a new action plan, you’ll eventually be alright and prosper. To do that repeatedly and not be insane, you have to examine the failures and learn from them to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to the failure.

We closed down an ancillary business unit this year, as it produced insufficient revenue to be self supporting after 2 years of investments in time and money. The research told us we were right to launch it, the market should have been there, our advisers and others told us it was a great idea, but in the end, not so much. Now it’s time to do the autopsy, find out what went wrong, and file it away so we don’t repeat it in the future. Without this final, often painful, step, the failure has little positive value. Simply chalking it up to experience and loss without the analysis only yields negatives. Eventually enough negatives can weigh your efforts irretrievably downward to the point of being unable to recover.

What’s the recovery plan? Once the analysis is done, the lessons learned, the mistakes and missteps identified, we move forward in a positive fashion, richer in the knowledge that we can apply that learning not only to our own endeavors, but apply it on behalf of our clients as well. That’s progress.

In short, don’t hide from failures or hide the results when they are less than optimal. Own them, learn from them, use them to your advantage. Those who say they only succeed are lying or selling something.

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About David Poulos

Speaker, Consultant and Author David Poulos is known as the Marketing Doctor because of his proven ability to accurately diagnose and prescribe the most effective solutions for successful business growth with absolute surgical precision.

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