WRITTEN BY ALICIA KOCH, FOUNDER OF THE LEGAL BELLETRIST
What a word.

Failure. 

All by its “itty-bitty” self, it conjures up feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and embarrassment. All in one go.

As if the word itself holds the power of a hundred men and women pointing and laughing because you tripped on a banana peel and landed flat on your backside. Yes, a completely ridiculous scenario out of scenes of a slapstick comedy.

But it does make you think – why does the word hold so much power over us?

Perhaps it’s because failures seem to make news headlines quicker than success stories do. Let’s be honest.

It’s like we all thrive knowing that someone else has failed. It makes us feel good somehow. Like we are not alone in the world of mishap.

The truth is, when I asked my husband (again – he suddenly seems to be filled with sage advice) what failure means to him, he couldn’t quite put it into words. Thinking quite hard, he described losing a job, losing a home, having no food to eat, no friends, no family. He basically described the story of Oliver Twist – “Please Sir, I want some more”.

Sad to be sure. But rather generic. And devoid of what failure could actually mean. With all due respect to my husband.

Why do I say this?

Because every single person who has done anything with their lives has failed. At least twice. Sometimes more.

Don’t believe me?

(Infographic by Adioma)

Everyone has failed.

The sheer number of quotes about failure proves this statement:

  • “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”Coco Chanel
  • “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”Robert F. Kennedy
  • “The phoenix must burn to emerge.”Janet Fitch
  • “If you don’t try at anything, you can’t fail… it takes back bone to lead the life you want”Richard Yates
  • “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”Denis Waitley
  • “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”Winston Churchill

And all of them – essentially – say the same thing.

The biggest lesson we can learn is changing how we see “failure”.

The biggest success stories start off as “failures”

Heard of Airbnb?
As of August 2022, Airbnb is valued at over US$70 billion. But it wasn’t a success story overnight. It took years for this “success story” to become a reality.

According to Failure before Success and Inc42 , it all started in 2007 when Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky met in Rhode School of Design and rented an apartment together. Due to the high rent, the roommates tried to find some means to pay for it. After a little bit of brainstorming, they came up with an idea.

They started with a very pedestrian website (airbedandbreakfast.com), bought three air mattresses and gave their apartment up for rent. Their first clients were two men and a woman, each paying out US$80 rent. With US$240 in hand on their very first day, Gebbia and Chesky both realized that there was something big about their idea.

And it was about this time that they approached their former roommate Nathan Blecharczyk to develop a more professional website for their budding enterprise (Blecharczyk eventually became the third co-founder of Airbnb).

But they hadn’t found success yet.

With their new, “more professional” website launched in 2008, they expected big things to start happening. But no one noticed, no one blinked an eye. So, instead of admitting defeat, they decided to launch it again at the annual event of SxSW.

Alas, the 5-day festival ended up with only two customers #epicfail (right?).

In fact, in 2008, more than 15 investors rejected them outright. There was no growth, no revenue, no visibility, the trio’s cash was running low and things seemed hopeless. Even their close friends advised them to look for other options. The trio spent the first three months of 2009 at the Y Combinator Startup School, but they failed to convince investors about the possibility of turning their marvelous idea into – what they believed – would be a profitable business. It was an extremely difficult time for the company.

(Infograph sourced from Adioma)

But while brainstorming one day, they suddenly had a light bulb moment – it was the photos on the portal that really sucked. So, they rented a camera and went door-to-door in NYC, building connections with the hosts and shooting quality photos of all the leased premises. As soon as they replaced the amateur photography with high resolution photos, the revenues doubled to US$400 per week.

In addition, in March of 2009, they decided to ditch their not-so-catchy name – “Air Bed and Breakfast “– and changed it to Airbnb – flashy, new, and so easy to say!

Their efforts finally had paid off.

Within a month, they got a seed investment of US$600,000 from Sequoia Capital (April 2009). Following that, they grew exponentially – the US$7.2 million Series A investment in 2010 and the next round of US$112 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz made Airbnb a Silicon Valley unicorn.

And this was from a company who struggled to raise US$150,000 in 2008.

Airbnb was a massive hit.

So much so, that as of 2022, Airbnb broke its own booking record in the second quarter of 2022 when guests collectively booked 103.7 million stays (including Experiences). The gross booking value for 2022 Q2 was US$17.0 billion. There are over 150 million worldwide users who have collectively booked over 1 billion stays. Airbnb includes listings from over 100,000 cities worldwide. And those are staggering numbers from a company that struggled and struggled when they first started.

Heard of Harry Potter?

Harry Potter and indeed the writer of the Wizarding World – J.K Rowling – are household names.

But Joanne Rowland (her actual name) was not an overnight success.

According to Biography –  “Poor and almost homeless, the ‘Harry Potter’ creator eventually became the world’s first billionaire author”.

From a failed, abusive marriage, Rowland found herself alone, in an apartment which she secured after begrudgingly accepting a loan from a friend, with her infant daughter, Jessica. She found herself “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” she became increasingly hopeless, angry about her so-called failures and immense guilt about her inability to provide for her daughter. It was at her lowest point that she contemplated suicide. She was in a bad way.

After realizing that she had to take care of her child, she pulled herself together and tried to get her head right. For the sake of her daughter. She underwent therapy, which helped, and decided to focus on a “boy wizard who flitted through her imagination” (since 1990).

She completed her first Harry Potter manuscript in 1995 and thereafter submitted a three-chapter sample of Harry Potter to an agent Christopher Little in London. But Harry Potter was rejected over a dozen times by publishing houses. Harry Potter rejected? It’s hard to believe. Little finally found a taker in a London publishing house Bloomsbury, which offered a £1,500 advance to Rowland. She also snagged a £8,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council, enabling her to finish the next Harry Potter book on a brand-new typewriter.

On June 26, 1997, Rowland saw her determination and typing night-after-night come to fruition with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K. But she was now known as “J.K. Rowling,” due to concerns about how boys would respond to a female writer.

Within days of the release of the first Harry Potter, children’s publishing powerhouse Scholastic had bid more than US$100,000 for the American publishing rights (They renamed the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). The highly successful sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets followed a year later, and by the fall of 1998, Warner Bros. was on board with a feature-film deal.

harry potter

A true “rags to riches” story – Rowland became a billionaire by 2004 when Hollywood was still only halfway through eight Harry Potter films and well before the launch of another cash-cow franchise, Fantastic Beasts.

From almost homeless to being a billionaire. From epic failure to epic success.

But it is Rowland’s commencing address to Harvard where she talks about the  ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’ that really speaks to what we said earlier – rethinking how we see failure:

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So, I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

And I think that J.K Rowling sets out how to relook at failure far better than I ever could.

(For more stories on people who have failed – epically – and then succeeded, read this).

After failure – How do you pick yourself up again?

Ok. So maybe you have failed. Maybe everything you have done and worked for thus far has not turned out the way you had planned it.

Life is like that sometimes.

So, what do you do if you fail? How do you pick yourself up again?

As inspired by the article’s Everyone Fails. Here’s How to Pick Yourself Back Up and Seven Outstanding Ways To Overcome Failure And Succeed, I have set out some pointers that can help you get back on track:

You are more than your mistake – it’s easy to focus on your mistake. It’s easy to reprimand yourself – “you could have done this better”. It’s easy to dwell. But that would be the wrong approach. Instead, remind yourself of all the things that you have done right. No matter how small they are. Remind yourself that before this failure, you had other successes. Think about what those are so that you can try soothing the burn of a setback. The point here is not to diminish the mistake or glance over it but rather to remind yourself that this is a minor setback. You are worth more than this!
Take a break but don’t give up – when facing failure, it’s important to take time out to look inward. Identify what the possible disconnect was. Identify the root of your mistake. Look at ways that you can do it differently next time. Draw up an action plan if you need to. Because it’s only after you have addressed the mistake that you can move forward. It’s only then that you have a chance to succeed. Don’t give up.
Try again – some say that success comes from living outside of your comfort zone. In order to do that, you need your drive to succeed to outweigh your fear of failure. So, do just that – dream big and let those dreams carry you as you move towards your goals.

dream big

Own your mistakes – it’s all too easy to point the finger of blame elsewhere. “I didn’t succeed because x happened”. But if you do that, how do you learn? And by blaming something or someone else, you may even end up repeating the same mistake in the future. And who wants that? Instead, own up to your mistake and your part in it. Take the lesson gained from that admission and apply it to your life so that the past is not repeated.
Practice self-compassion – I know when I fail or make a mistake, I’m extremely hard on myself. I’m my worst critic. I’m sure that a lot of you reading this are the same way. But what if it was your friend that was going through this? What would you tell them? I’m sure you would be kind, supportive and compassionate. After all, it’s one set back. Not the end of the world. So, practice the same compassion towards yourself.  Being hard on yourself can cause immense stress and anxiety (I’m speaking from experience here). So, instead of being harsh and critical, be kind. Be gentle. And treat yourself how you would treat others – compassionately. Dealing with a setback is hard enough without the self-criticism!

Practice risk taking – Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Do something that scares you every day.” And that’s all well and good. But perhaps a little “higher grade” for those of us who haven’t quite yet mastered the “art of failing”. So, instead of doing something that completely freaks you out, why not start small? Here are a few suggestions on less adrenalin inducing activities, which will still help you as you learn that failing is not the end of the world:

  • Practice being alone – enjoy a meal for one at a new restaurant. Better still, be brave and order a glass of wine whilst you do!

Dinner for One: Green Lip Mussels and a glass of Chardonnay at the Pepper Tree Restaurant & Bar, Coromandel, New Zealand

 

  • Try a new activity – like ice-skating or horse riding. Something a little out of your comfort zone. But still fun. Please be sure to do any new activity with a professional – we wouldn’t want you to cause physical injury to yourself just to experience a new activity!
  • Be bold – when booking your next trip ask for an upgrade in accommodation. Give it a whirl and see what your negotiation skills are like.
  • Gain a new skill – have you changed a tyre by yourself? Do you know how to crochet? Or perhaps, pottery is on the cards for you. Pick one and give it a shot. You have nothing to lose.
  • Seek like-minded peoplefailure, especially when you are hard on yourself, can be hard to deal with on your own. Instead of bearing down and ‘going at it alone”, seek out people that are like-minded, that can rally around you. Seek support from others who may have been in your shoes or are currently going through all the feels too. Having a support system is key.

Seek outside helpsometimes it’s extremely hard to see through all the fog, to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes you need some outside, unbiased perspective to help you get through the muddy water. Contact Braving Boundaries and set up a call with Frieda Levycky who can take you through some practical and actionable steps to get you out of your failure rut and ultimately on the road where you can achieve success.

Whilst doing any of the activities suggested above, please remember that lasting change doesn’t come easily. It takes work. It takes practice. Sometimes change is a result of the small things that you have done along the way. Don’t beat yourself up. Try a few new things, try taking small risks and see where that gets you. After all, you often need to master the basics before you can move on to the next round. Think of these suggestions as the basics. As baby steps. And go from there…

 

Final thoughts on failure

As Paulo Coelho said –

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” 

Don’t give up on your dreams because of mistake, a failure, a setback – whatever you want to call it. Get back on that horse and try and try again!

Every single person fails at some point in their life. The supporting evidence is overwhelming.

Failure is just an “itty-bitty” little word. It does not define you! And what’s more – it is inevitable.

Remember what J.K Rowling said –

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

So, then, by all means – fail.

Because at least it means you will be living. But remember to dust yourself off and get back up again.

Because giving up is not an option!

FURTHER READING

If you enjoyed this article, take a read of the previous article: “What is Success?

About the writer, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist.

Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism. 

Click here to visit The Legal Belletrist website.

Email: alicia@thebelletrist.com 

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