Should we Celebrate Failure?
Recently, I came upon a report in a newspaper that argued that we should celebrate failure. Quoting an entrepreneur, it lamented that we are obsessed with just a few popular startups. We should pay attention to failures too. “How about instituting a ‘Failure of the Year Award’, just like ‘Entrepreneur of the Year Award’?” it asked.
The article made me think: should we celebrate failure? And, what is failure in the first place?
Let me take you to the world of sports, where success and failure are easily measurable. Imagine a race at a huge stadium. There is raw energy in the air. Suddenly, one of the runners skips and falls. But that’s only for a couple of seconds. She picks herself up, and runs as if life depends on it, manages to place second. The entire auditorium gives a standing ovation — because she picked herself up.
Did she fail? Are we celebrating her fall ? No. We are cheering the comeback spirit.
Off the track, this process — the failure, the recovery, and the ultimate prize — is never quite as fast. It takes time. It involves learning. Such learning depends on brutal honesty; the kind of honesty that Andre Agassi demonstrated in his fantastic autobiography “Open”. Even in the eighties, Agassi was an icon. People first started noticing him for his earrings, the color of his hair, and the style of his clothes. But soon, they were consumed by his tennis — the power of his shots, and the grace of his movements on the court. Like every human being, he had his failures, his moments of self-doubt, loss of confidence, physical degradation, and pain. His book recounts these days with amazing clarity and a rare honesty. His comeback in 1999, when he swept tennis fans off their feet by winning the French Open, was no accident. It was a result of that rare mix of introspection, honesty, humility, courage, planning, and hard work.
The world of sports offers innumerable examples of heroes such as Agassi. But such heroes are in the world of business too. One obvious example is Steve Jobs. His story is well known. We celebrate Jobs because he picked himself up and made a comeback. That didn’t happen by accident either. Becoming Steve Jobs, a book by two business journalists, shows how between his disastrous first innings and fabulous second innings, there was a period of learning.
I am happy to see such honesty among Indian entrepreneurs too. They don’t live in denial, and they take an honest view of failures. For example, Peppertap CEO recently gave a perspective on failure from his own experienceof running the startup. Similarly, another entrepreneur Sahil Kini wrote a heartfelt piece about what it felt like when his start up failed — the raw emotion of it is almost palpable. In an insightful article, Fab founder Jason Goldberg wrote about how it took him two years to talk candidly about his failure.
In a way, it ought to be plain common sense. You evaluate the viability of an idea or business, and if it doesn’t work, accept failure. Unfortunately, common sense is not quite so common when our emotions are part of the picture.
Some years ago we invested in a firm that was in an exciting space. The market opportunity was huge, and the macro trends were favorable. However, the firm had accumulated debt by not paying several suppliers, and were at the brink of shutting down. We agreed to invest, close the debt, and clean up the balance sheet. We then moved on to fix the operations. What we needed was fast execution, and then on to market dominance. Straightforward enough. Or so we thought. To that end, we had long discussions with the founder and the management. We analysed the strengths and weaknesses, and collectively decided on the organizational changes that the company needed. With concurrence from the founder, we agreed that we needed to bring an external CEO on board, to complement the team. The plan looked great, on paper.
I wish the reality were that simple. For in the following weeks and months, we found the start-up repeating the same mistakes that had brought it to the brink of disaster the last time. The integrity needed to deliver on promises and sticking to commitment was lacking. Liabilities began to mount again, and there were issues related to compliance.
Very few founders, much like teenagers, are willing to listen to advice — even when they ought to. No amount of discussion and advice post-investment seemed to have any meaningful impact. We offered to sell our share at cost and move on, since we no longer had any confidence in the founder and his advisors. When that failed, we suggested selling the company, albeit nobody would have made much money at that point. At a time when real decisions needed to be made, we were talking to a wall. In the end we resigned from the board, using the only option we had to signal our dismay at the fiscal mismanagement of the company. Predictably, things became worse. They were unable to pay suppliers, employees, even the dues owed to the government, while destroying investors’ value and their own credibility in the process. At every step, we were giving sound advice to deaf ears. Most often tough advice is not forthcoming in most companies. Even when offered, few choose to act upon it. Emotions cloud reality. Fantasy replaces practicality. Procrastination replaces action.
What are the lessons we can learn from these anecdotes?
Spot the signs of failures early: Failure doesn’t happen suddenly. Take the instance of one of the earliest recorded volcano eruptions, which occurred in 79AD, in Pompeii in ancient Rome. Eyewitness accounts from that time tell us that people in the city were taken utterly by surprise when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Very few events are quite as cataclysmic like that. Anyone who has studied history will know that the decay of a civilization is visible long before its fall. Paul Kennedy’s “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” documents how the fall is a slow and visible process, in case after case. It happened to the Ottoman Empire. It happened to the Roman Empire. It happened to the modern British Empire, and the East India Company. It has happened to a number of Fortune 500 companies over the years. And it is true for start-ups too. So, watch for the early tell-tale signs.
If you let yourself be surprised by a failure, more often that not, it is because you stopped listening.
Don’t expect drastic change after a deal: Business deals are like marriages. In a marriage, if you pick a partner who is not right for you in the hope that he/she will dramatically change after marriage, it’s doomed to fail. You can take cotton and make fabric, wood and make furniture. You can’t turn steel into rubber, or wood into cotton. Change in form is possible, but not in core properties. The same holds true in business as well. People don’t change much. In our case, despite several discussions, promises and commitment from the entrepreneur, we watched him revert to the same patterns of behavior that had pushed them to failure in the first place. And our mistake was not recognizing that pattern at the outset.
No one holds a monopoly over such mistakes. In research, scientists who are supposed to be far more rational fall into a similar pattern. They persist with the same methodology despite evidence showing that it doesn’t work and there’s a need to consider a fresh approach. That’s one reason why it takes a new generation of researchers to come up with something revolutionary. It’s so common in science, that Einstein once defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results’. It’s true in the world of sports. Coaches tell us how difficult it is to change the fundamental mistakes marathon runners or swimmers make. They continue to do what they do because they are comfortable doing that. It’s a habit.
It’s near impossible to pull people out of prisons of habit. Don’t expect a Founder (or an investor) to change core characteristics.
Don’t be delusional: Face the facts. Sometimes, people use catchy labels and wrong metrics to avoid confronting the hard truth. In our earlier example of running a race, it wouldn’t have mattered if the runner were the first to leave the block. What mattered was whether she got up after falling down, and if she ran till the finishing line. The tag, “first off the blocks”, would have taken her nowhere. In business too, such labels are meaningless. Steve Jobs didn’t call himself the father of smartphones. He focused on bringing out better and better iPhones. Jeff Bezos didn’t call himself the father of e-commerce. He focused on providing better service to more customers. Last I checked, Bezos was the world’s third richest man.
Measurable impact is far more meaningful than self-adopted labels. I get weary when people start dropping names, or promise to be different after funding.
Resist the temptation to blame others: The easiest thing to do when something goes wrong is to place the blame on others. Some entrepreneurs like to blame the VCs for their failures. It’s like adults blaming their parents for their failures. It’s also the least useful tactic, and might stand in the way of picking ourselves up and finishing the game. Don’t get me wrong — Finding the root cause of any problem is important. It takes persistence, intelligence, and courage to look into what went wrong. There was something inspiring about Richard Feynman explaining what went wrong with Challenger.
This is an example of objective analysis.
It’s important to know the difference between dispassionate analyses and the blame game.
Identify the source of failure: Find out what caused the failure. Sometimes as in Pompeii, it could be forces beyond our control. For example, some of my investments will fail because the market is not ready yet. There, I would take pride that we at least pioneered. But in some cases, failures happen because of individuals, because of wrong judgement about their capabilities. In those cases, I am personally hard on myself. I brood till I understand where I went wrong and I work hard to learn from each failure.
In the end the question is, ‘should we celebrate failure?’ Not in my book. However, I do draw enormous inspiration from people who triumph by picking themselves up and rising above their failures.
There are many such stories of dedication — Soichiro Honda began his career as an bicycle mechanic at the age of 15. Creating a technology that he believed would change the evolution of the automobile, Honda’s idea was shot down by Toyota and several other auto makers. Undeterred, Honda would go on to start this small auto maker we know now as Honda Motor Company, whose revenues are over 100 Billion annually! His invention was the piston/rings, which almost every vehicle has used in the last 70 years — including Toyota.
And it isn’t just inventors. Artists are perhaps among the most familiar with struggle and failure, oftentimes simply because they’re ahead of their time. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one piece during his lifetime, and even that was to a friend for a pittance. Lucky for the art world, Van Gogh soldiered on, and went on to paint over 800 works. Today his work sells for millions of dollars. Similar circumstances nearly prevented the world from ever knowing the wondrous world of Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s typewritten manuscript was rejected by over a dozen publishing houses before her big break. More recently, we saw Dipa Karmakar narrowly miss her shot at an Olympic medal in Rio. Disappointed as she was, she later spoke on how this would fuel her to ensure she brings home a medal at the next Olympics. While coming 4th at the Olympics is no mean feat in itself, she has taken what was considered a failure and channeled it to push herself to do better.
These inspirational juggernauts show us that while failure isn’t exactly something to be celebrated, it certainly isn’t something to be feared either. The secret lies in embracing the lessons that failure teaches us, while keeping our chin up and ensuring we emerge from the tunnel wiser.
To sign off, I’d like to quote basketball great Michael Jordan, who himself battled multiple failures before being recognized as the legend that he is today — “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
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Ronzulli took her 44-day-old daughter, Vittoria, to a plenary session of the European Parliament as a symbolic gesture to reclaim more rights for women in reconciling work and family life. According to the mother, she did not want to leave her daughter at home when she her office allowed her to carry their children to work. Ronzulli carrying her child to work was considered as a perfect balance between work and motherhood by women. She was highly appreciated for her effort by many women across countries
Why Doesn’t the Queen of England Need a Passport?
As the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, the commonwealth, and certain other countries that have since declared independence but decided they kind of like having the Queen on their money, Queen Elizabeth II enjoys a number of unique perks not bestowed on any of her subjects. These include being immune from prosecution from any crime she may happen to commit (justice is served in her name); she cannot be compelled to give evidence in court; she owns all of the dolphins, sturgeons and whales found in British waters (she also technically owns all mute swans found on open waters in Britain); she has the ability to declare war on any other nation if she so desires it; and, most pertinent to the present conversation, she doesn’t need a passport to travel abroad. So why not?
The answer lies in the fact that all British passports are issued in the Queen’s name. In fact, if you open up a British passport and turn to the first page, you will find a message that reads:
Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.
In a nutshell, because a British passport is partially just a request from the Queen to allow one of her subjects to travel freely beyond the borders of her country, she doesn’t need one- she can just ask that in person.
Of course, a passport also has another purpose- identifying the person in possession of it. As such, the Queen does have to jump through similar hoops as an ordinary person when she travels and is required to give her name, date of birth and occupation (she unsurprisingly usually just answers “Queen”) to officials upon arrival in a foreign country.
This is all made slightly more complicated in that, besides having no passport, the Queen generally does not carry any sort of official picture ID. She gets around potential issues this might otherwise cause by having her aides clear her trips with the various state departments before she arrives. This way her arrival can be fast-tracked and it helps ensure customs officials don’t give her any guff for lack of passport and potentially lack of picture ID- like if they didn’t believe she was actually the Queen. Of course, given her recognisability throughout much of the world and the fact that she often arrives with full entourage in her private plane, this probably wouldn’t usually be an issue even if she didn’t call ahead.
And if you’re curious, all other members of the Royal Family are required to have a passport like anyone else, though their Royal passports contain special instructions detailing their diplomatic status, allowing them to skirt some of the normal security checks.
Speaking of the Queen generally not carrying around any official picture ID, along with being the only person in the UK to not need a passport, the Queen similarly doesn’t need a driver’s license to drive either. This is because, like passports, driver’s licenses are issued in her name. So she’s allowed to simply vouch for her own driving ability in person should she ever be pulled over.
Now, you’d think given her status and wealth, the Queen would never drive anyway, but you’d be wrong. You see, during WW2 the Queen (then a princess) badgered her father to let her do her part for her country and subsequently ended up serving as a mechanic and driver with the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service at the tender age of 18. (She’d actually registered to serve at age 16 but King George wouldn’t allow it).
The Queen took her position incredibly seriously, becoming, by all accounts, a competent mechanic and driver, trained to fix and drive a host of military and suburban vehicles.
Fast-forwarding a bit through history, a humourous story about the Queen’s driving prowess comes from 1998 when she was visited at her estate in Balmoral, Scotland by the then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The story was later revealed to the world by one-time Saudi ambassador Sherard Cowper-Cole.
Knowing Abdullah’s stance on the rights of women and the fact that women are essentially banned from driving in Saudi Arabia (there’s technically no law that says women can’t drive, but licenses are only issued to men), the Queen, demonstrating quintessential British passive aggressiveness, offered the Prince a tour of her palace grounds.
Dutifully, the Prince agreed and the pair headed outside where a large Land Rover bearing the Royal insignia was parked. After waiting for the Prince to climb into the passenger seat where he no doubt assumed a chauffeur would drive the pair around, the Queen then nonchalantly climbed into the driver’s seat and proceeded to drive the car, much to the Prince’s astonishment. According to ambassador Sherard, the Prince was extremely nervous about this arrangement from the start.
Things didn’t get better for him.
The then 72 year old Queen, knowing that Abdullah had never been driven by a woman before and no doubt observing his anxiety, decided to mess with him by purposely driving as fast as possible on “the narrow Scottish estate roads”.
As she sped along at break-neck speeds, the Crown Prince screamed at the Queen through his interpreter to slow down and pay closer attention to her driving. The Queen, ignoring his admonishments completely, continued pleasantly chatting away as if she wasn’t doing her best Fast and the Furious impression. We can only imagine Abdullah’s reaction if the Queen had mentioned to him that she never got her driver’s license.
HTDO*- Hold the door open!
Mathews, a hotshot sales manager, on a Sunday evening, was in the parking lot of a shopping mall. The parking lot was packed. Cars were crawling with anxious drivers looking for that one vacant slot. Mathews, sharp and aggressive as he was known to be, spotted a vacant space ahead and quickly zoomed in. He could see another car trying to reverse into the same slot, but Mathews was determined to beat the other man to it. And he did! Mathews felt jubilant – as we all sometimes do with life’s little victories. The old man driving the car was disappointed. He looked Mathews in the eye and continued his search for another parking slot.
Two days later, Mathews was preparing for one of the biggest moments of his career. He was close to winning a big contract for his company. And all that was left now was the formal handshake meeting with the client’s CEO. As Mathews walked into the client’s office and saw the CEO, he felt a sudden sense of discomfort. Yes, it was the same man from whom he had snatched the parking slot on Sunday. And you can guess what happened thereafter. Alas! If only Mathews had grown up with the HTDO habit!
So whats HTDO?
It has probably happened to you before. As you walk towards the door of an office, or a hotel, the person walking in front holds the door open for you. Remember how good it made you feel – if only for that moment.
Isn’t it surprising that although we all feel good when someone holds the door open for us, we seldom do the same for other? How come?
It’s probably because we are all preoccupied with ourselves and obsessed with getting ahead. Here, then, is a life-changing lesson they don’t teach you in any B school
- ‘Hold The Door Open’.
The world can be divided into two types of people. Those who push open a door, walk through and let it slam behind them. That’s the 99% of the population.
And there’s the 1% who hold it open to allow the next person to walk through. Learn to do that, and you too could join the select 1% club.
Winning in life is less about naked ambition and more about helping other people win.
Someone once said,
“It’s nice to be important. But it’s more important to be nice”
Make a beginning.
Hold The Door Open.
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