Success Comes One Failure at a Time
We moved to the Silicon Valley in the early 1970s, just as the Valley was beginning to make an international name for itself.
Even though the IBM PC and the Apple MacIntosh were still almost a decade away, people could already foresee the approaching dawn of the personal computer. As a result, there was a mad dash to build the kind of memory systems that desktop computers would demand.
Questions We Weren't Asking
One day I heard a radio interview with an entrepreneur who was tackling this very problem. He was confident that a concept which he had developed would revolutionize the approach to memory design.
He had persuaded a number of deep-pocketed investors to back him. And he had opened a lab to build a functional prototype to prove the validity of his concept.
Then a stubborn reality set in. Try as they might, his researchers were unable to fashion a workable prototype. A myriad of unexpected challenges thwarted first one attempt, then another.
By the time of the radio interview, this process had been underway for three or four years. During the broadcast one business reporter put this question to him: "It's reported that you've tried about 300 different ways to implement your concept, and they have all failed. Is that true?"
Immediately the man shot back, "No, that's not true at all. What we have done is to discover the answers to 300 questions that we did not happen to be asking." Then he added, "And when the industry gets around to asking these questions, we will already have the answer."
The reporter saw the 300 experiments as a sign of failure. The entrepreneur saw them as unique learning experiences.
His response is typical of the mindset that I've seen over my lifetime on the part of highly successful people. They don't dwell on failure. They don't brood about it. In fact, they don't even see it as failure. They see it as simply a lesson learned en route to what they ultimately want to achieve.
Starting All Over
Shortly after I heard that radio interview, I met another entrepreneur with this same kind of spirit. Here was a man who who was genuinely down on his luck. He had lost everything in a disastrous real estate deal.
His trove of photographs in leather-bound albums showed him rubbing shoulders with presidents and prime ministers around the globe. But he was no longer a part of that world. He was now officing out of a spare bedroom in his tiny rented house, unable to afford even a separate phone line for his business.
Over coffee one night I asked him how he was going to recover. His eyes lit up as he said, "My first goal is to earn a million dollars, then use that money to rebuild my fortune."
He leaned forward, looked me in the eye, and said "It took me five years to earn my first million dollars. That's because I made a lot of miscalculations along the way. From what I learned, I figure I can make my next million dollars in less than two years, maybe even in one."
Which is precisely what he did. There was no time for moping. No private or public pity parties. He simply learned from what had happened and built an even greater success based on his deeper wisdom.
The Seed of Future Success
Abraham Lincoln once observed that he could speak with far more insight about what he had learned from his failures than from what he had learned from modest success.
In his widely-read book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill summed up lessons that he had learned from interviewing dozens of wealthy business leaders whose fortune was self-made. According to Hill, what set them apart from ordinary people was their attitude toward failure. They lived by the principle that in every failure is the seed of some future success.
In effect these giants of industry and business attained success one failure at a time. In every failure they looked for a lesson that would propel them to greater things in the future.
Anchored in the Future
Do you approach failure with this same mindset? As a startup business owner, you have joined the world of the entrepreneur. To succeed, you must now learn to think like as entrepreneur. Not like run-of-the-mill entrepreneurs. But like truly successful ones.
And the place to start is by refusing to see failure as failure. When things go wrong, don't wallow in doubt and self-pity, or resign yourself to giving up because you've failed. Instead, ask yourself, "What did I learn from this experience? And how can what I've learned help me in the future?"
When you view misfortune and untoward developments as failure, you anchor your mind in the past. And there's not one thing that you can do about the past.
On the other hand, when you look at these same events with an eye to utilizing the lessons which you've learned from them, you turn your attention forward. Now you are focused on something which you can do something about. The future.
You started your business because you dreamed of a certain future to which you aspired. So pledge to be relentlessly future-focused. Learn from mistakes and move forward. Even, if like my friend, you have to start all over again from scratch.
This article first appeared in Encore Entrepreneur inbox magazine on July 10, 2014.