Failure (not your own) as a teacher

Failure is a teacher.

Crashing and burning your way to failure in a spectacular way is an even better teacher.

Why? Because failure cuts, spectacular failure cuts deep, and I’ve found that the most guarded, strongly held beliefs in people tend to be based on emotional, embarrassing moments of failure in their past.

But these lessons from failure are sold; not given freely. For you may have spent years in a relationship, thousands of dollars on a business, or evenings and weekends for a job that has since sent you packing.

I wonder – could these lessons be bought more cheaply?

Is it necessary to experience failure yourself before you learn the lesson?

Or is it possible to learn the lesson from another’s experience?

My first business was a failure. Looking back at the business plan I wrote for it (do people still write formal business plans?) I can only cringe and laugh at my naivete. I’d had what I thought was an incredible idea and pursued it with blinders on, investing more and more while prospects dimmed and eventually winked out.

I found myself too deeply in my business and, at the time, I didn’t have the ability to step back and work on the business.

And yet, it sure taught me a lot. I learned that:

  • Ideas are important yet overrated. People like to do what I did – fall in love with my first idea and charge full-steam ahead. This is a mistake. Related: Ideas are just a multiplier of execution.
  • Hiring contractors instead of employees (if you can), isn’t as cheap as you might think. Reliability issues, constant hiring, paperwork, and lack of commitment, to name a few, are all very real costs.
  • Everything costs more than you think it will. Supplies, legal, accounting, compensation, even depositing profits into the bank! The list goes on and the profits keep dwindling. Be conservative and bake a buffer into your budgets and your prices.
  • The importance of finding great co-founders and business partners can’t be overstated. It’s vital and is more important than your idea. Ideas can (and should) change and adapt when you release them into the world, while co-founders are with you to the end.
  • You have to find contentment in your day-to-day. That doesn’t mean you have to love or have “passion” for your business, but it does mean that you can’t only be in it for the ends. The ends won’t sustain you when the going gets tough. A great co-founder may, though (read above point again).

Despite the financial failure of the business, it taught me very important lessons. But these lessons cost me $15k and a year and a half of my life as a 22 year old kid.

Could I have learned these lessons in a better (cheaper, quicker) way?

It’s easy to subscribe to the popular idea that this experience made me who I am today, therefore I shouldn’t wish to change it…yadda yadda yadda…but this idea fails to examine what if.

  • What if I’d been a bit more knowledgeable about how good businesses should work?
  • What if I’d made the effort to reach out and learn from people who have done it before?
  • What if I’d spent my evenings and weekends researching and reading instead of blowing full steam ahead at the first idea that sounded smart?

No, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. Maybe I would be better.

Maybe just enough wisdom would have pushed me onto a better path. Wisdom found through books, interviews, and people in my community. Wisdom found without direct experience.

It’s like this – all the lessons I learned from my first business cut me deeply. There’s scar tissue. I won’t forget them because they were painful to experience (and even to recollect!).

But others have made these mistakes before me. They’ve written about them, talk about them, and are happy to share them. Could I not have learned from them and saved myself a lot of pain, money, and time?

I think of reading, listening to podcasts, talking to others who have been there, etc, etc, as a light scratch on the arm. It heals. It fades. Unless you scratch it again. And again. And after enough time those soft scratches cut deeper and deeper, and maybe they end up as deep as the one you received when you were a naive kid who didn’t know what the hell he was doing.

There’s no substitute for direct experience, they say. And I think there is some truth to this. I couldn’t become a top salesman just from reading books, but I bet I could accelerate my path. Or, I could learn that sales isn’t for me.

Failure is a teacher. But I think it’s an overrated teacher. Every lesson imaginable is already out there, documented with honest, painful prose, just waiting for you.

Learn from everyone, study your craft, and find success instead of failure.

And when things are outside of your control and you can’t succeed, find failure more quickly, learn the lessons you need to learn, and start again.

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