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The value of perspective in assessing success and failure

When I was 17, my parents went through a difficult financial period. The details aren’t particularly relevant for this article, suffice to say the family business hit a very rough patch and at one point there was genuine talk of losing the family home. As a teenager wrestling with the conflict between childhood and young adulthood, overhearing their stress-fuelled arguments was both confusing and distressing. On the one hand I wanted their financial problems to simply disappear, yet the most fundamental feeling was a desire for them to prioritise keeping the family together. As a naive adolescent it was easy to conclude that relationships are more important than lifestyle, and a part of me found it incomprehensible that such a trivial thing as money would threaten the family unit. Surely losing the family home, albeit very distressing its own right, would be far less distressing than my parents losing each other.

The worst that could happen

Fear can often lead to poor decisions or, worse, total inaction. Fear of losing one’s home, fear of disappointing one’s loved ones, fear of being deemed a failure by friends, peers and society, are all powerful stressors. The loss of a business that you have poured your heart and soul into has repercussions not only on your material life but on your fundamental sense of identity, self-worth and confidence. It is no exaggeration to describe the prospect of business failure as a profoundly existential threat, psychologically and spiritually life-threatening for those facing it. A natural reaction to such a threat is panic, which quickly unravels any sense of focus or calm. Anger, conjured by stress, often takes over as we lash out indiscriminately at the world around us, like trapped animals, harming anything that happens to be within our proximity at the time: colleagues, loved ones. Depression usually ensues, with its devastating annihilation of any desire to take remedial action. We feel the world is collapsing around us, and there’s little we can do about it. It is a loss of control that, at its most extreme, can culminate in heartbreaking tragedy.

Success = not failure?

In business, the worst that could happen is the company going bust. But is that really true? As with anything else, the baseline dictates the feelings here, and fear is at the epicentre of every narrative around failure. So what exactly are people afraid of?

Damned statistics

Perhaps the most damaging piece of data around entrepreneurship is the oft-cited statistic that 90% of businesses fail. It’s damaging because, let’s be honest: if you heard that 90% of flights ended in a crash you would likely never step on a plane. But the statistic is fatalistic; it disregards the reasons for failure and the consequence of personal learning and growth that arise from such failures. Blockbuster Video failed, so was Wayne Huizenga a failure? I will get to that a little later, but first let’s examine two key points: how much of an impact does experience have on the failure rate, and exactly where does one pin the failure flag on a company’s timeline?

Conclusion

When thinking about failure, perspective matters. One person’s success could be another’s failure purely because of their point of view. Turbulence feels like an imminent plane crash to an inexperienced or nervous flyer, while to an experienced passenger it is a minor inconvenience that makes it a bit trickier to eat the in-flight meal. A packed train feels like a coffin to a claustrophobe while other passengers merely feel irritated by having to endure others’ body odours at such close proximity. Business failure feels like the worst thing in the world the first time, but on the second or third attempt its value as a learning experience starts to manifest and pay dividends. In the end, though, the most effective way of overcoming a fear of anything is to expose yourself to it.

CEO & Founder of Firedrop.ai. I write about technology, artificial intelligence, entrepreneurship and other stuff. https://firedrop.ai

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