The F-word – FAILURE. It makes us cringe. The one thing we do not want to be. Forbes celebrates the richest people in the world and crowns the “30 under 30”, “40 under 40”? Businesspeople demonstrate their success by sharing their #millionairelifestyle by celebrating with a post of themselves in their sportscar and designer outfit? Would it even be acceptable to fail in such a world?
Whenever I read biographies of successful people, their paths to success are depicted as a true breeze. The first years, which are usually the toughest, are covered in a few pages. Almost no details are given about the challenging tasks or the sleepless nights. Very often, businesses are sold as overnight successes even though that success had been in the making for years. Similarly, many entrepreneurs were not successful with their very first business, they failed with one or even more businesses until they succeeded.
Maybe publishers think readers do not appreciate reading about the hard work and effort. I personally would appreciate hearing more exactly about these times because it would let me understand that person’s success more. I also think it would make their success even bigger if we knew how hard it was for them to get there.
Social media platforms offer filters to “improve” our images and to present a perfected version of our bodies. Similarly, no matter the medium, businesses and careers are shown with a similar filter. We see the end result – usually money- or status-related. There is no mention about failures – everything seems perfect. And if tough times are mentioned, it is done in a sugar-coated way as a side note or packaged in a “user-friendly” way.
I have to admit, it is very tough not to get sucked into this version of reality. I recently read about an athleisure brand which claims to only have started during the first lockdown in 2020. This summer, they not only had a broad range of products and a big following across multiple social media channels but also opened several physical branches. Everyone who runs a business knows that this is not a one-year-job. Just the development of the products (they claim to use an innovative type of fabric) probably took them months, let alone building up a (genuine) social media following. Probably that company started much longer ago and only publicises their end-spurt.
At first, I got upset. “Why do the media always jump on these sugar-coated stories,” I asked myself. “Why is there always this pressure to be successful over night?” Why? Because it is a great story to tell. It is similar to the overnight successes in sports: XYZ is the youngest ever player to win the US Open. Do we talk about the hard work and all the failures, all the matches they lost? Of course not! Who wants to talk about that?
In 2014, I received an invitation to a “Fuck Up Night”. You probably think the same what I thought when I first saw the invite. But this was an evening where founders could meet and discuss their failures to learn from each other. At first, I was intrigued by the concept, especially because I think we do not talk about failures enough. But when I attended that thing, it was again another show by people who did not want to be honest at all. Nobody really shared a failure. I guess nobody wanted to make themselves vulnerable in front of strangers.
But why not?
If everything went smoothly all the time, we would not learn anything. Looking back from the Kindergarten days onwards: How did I learn? From failure. How did I learn to ride a bike? From falling off it and learning how to balance the bike. How did I improve my Chinese language skills? By making mistakes, being laughed at and getting frustrated. How did I grow as an entrepreneur? By analyzing which decisions resulted in failures and working on how to prevent similar decisions in the future.
I think the reluctance of sharing our failures is even bigger for women. As women we have to work four times harder. If we make a mistake, it will be pointed out for sure. Failure will not be tolerated. Hence, we start protecting ourselves. And self-protection is the complete opposite of sharing our failures and, consequently, making ourselves vulnerable. Unfortunately, we also contribute to creating this myth and deprive ourselves and other women from learning from our failures.
People love to see the end result. We do not really see that tennis player XYZ only made it to the US Open because they started training from a very early age. They win now because they did not let the lost matches mess with their mind. They became resilient, analysed their failures and turned them into successes.
I think what we all need is honesty. Rather than posting another beautiful sugar-coated story, why not share something imperfect? Why can we not say that sometimes it is really, really hard and that sometimes, we do fail?
Let me start in this Postcard: I also failed sometimes. And sometimes, it is really, really hard. Sometimes, I would like to give up. But instead, I choose to pull myself together, look forward, learn from my mistakes and keep going. This is what really makes us a success.