No Trophies in Defeat: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Failure




  • — June 20, 2019

    Matthew Webb was a steamship captain in Britain when he decided to be the first person to swim across the English Channel. Another man had recently attempted the crossing and failed, but Webb was confident he could complete the twenty-one-mile swim despite the icy water and unpredictable tides. He left his job, began training, and early one morning in 1875 he set out from Dover, England.

    He swam alongside his escort boat, enduring cold water, jellyfish stings, and heavy seas, swimming for the French coastline. Night fell, and a dense fog rolled in. He couldn’t see land, and with the fog and wind, he couldn’t tell if he was even heading south toward France anymore. As he approached the second day, still swimming blind in the fog, his body gave out. As the escort crew hauled him aboard, the sun rose and the fog began to lift. Land came into view. They were a mere hundred yards from shore. Success was right there, but Webb had failed to see it.

    Less than two weeks later, he was back at the Admiralty Pier in Dover, slathering oil on his bare skin and diving into the icy water for a second attempt. Currents repeatedly pushed him off course, forcing him to swim an extra forty miles, but twenty-two hours later, he touched ground in Calais, France. His feat made him famous.

    Success Doesn’t Happen Overnight

    I tell that story to aspiring entrepreneurs who ask me about my own success in business. Many of them believe success comes suddenly—you have one brilliant idea and you get instantly rich—but I use the Matthew Webb story to explain that it doesn’t work that way.

    To succeed in any endeavor, you must be willing to push ahead and work through all the challenges, little and big, standing in your way. You have to fight through the fog that obscures your goal. You have to keep swimming when your arms are heavy. If you’re going to get anywhere, you have to anticipate failure, overcome it, and learn from it the way Matthew Webb did.

    There are always setbacks, complications, and disappointments. In fact, the closer you get to a breakthrough, whether it’s in business or another pursuit, the harder the challenges get. This is when people often quit, and that’s why there is such a high failure rate for businesses.

    All too many aspiring entrepreneurs don’t know where to begin. They are paralyzed by fear of failure, thinking, What if I invest all my savings and the business fails? What if I quit my job to start this new venture and I wind up broke? What if I try out for that sports team and I get cut?

    Allow Yourself to Fail

    Part of the problem is that our culture is built around instant gratification. It rewards us just for trying and doesn’t prepare us for the hard knocks life dishes out. I first noticed this when my kids played Little League. When a player hit a ground ball and got thrown out at first base, he was allowed to stay on base anyway. At the end of the season, everyone got a participation trophy. It didn’t matter whether the kids won or lost, or finished first or last. No one was allowed to fail.

    Unfortunately, that’s not how the real game is played. Why train hard or practice long hours if you’ll get a trophy for finishing last? Why work on your hitting if you get to stay on base when you ground out? Disguising failure robs kids of life’s lessons, and the result is that too many young people never develop the necessary resilience and incentive to improve.

    People reach adulthood with an aversion to risk and a sense of entitlement. They expect job offers to flow into their inbox. They want high-paying internships. They fail to see the connection between success and hard work. They don’t know how to brush off defeat and try again. They’ve learned that failure is a sign that they should stop what they’re doing, move on, and play it safe. It wasn’t meant to be, they think. Oh well. I tried.

    The truth is that the marketplace doesn’t reward failure. It rewards those who are unfazed by failure. Winners aren’t defeated by their mistakes, they are strengthened by them. They examine failure, learn what caused it, and make adjustments so it doesn’t happen again.

    The truth is that the marketplace doesn’t reward failure. It rewards those who are unfazed by failure. Winners aren’t defeated by their mistakes, they are strengthened by them. They examine failure, learn what caused it, and make adjustments so it doesn’t happen again.

    This post is adapted from my new book, Embracing Failure.

    For more advice on entrepreneurship, you can find Embracing Failure on Amazon.

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    Author: Mat Pelletier

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