Four Surprising Words About Failure

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ONE OF MY FAVORITE RESTAURANTS closed recently. It wasn’t a surprise. But it was a shame. I’d been a customer for 20 years.

Failure is always hard. And sad.

My restaurant-owner friend had been working like a dog, but he just didn’t know what to do better. The kitchen was quick.

The food was great. Prices were fair. But the front part was out of date, the wait staff often rude or indifferent. The competition fresher and more fun.

And so he failed.

I’d been thinking about his failure when I broke open a fortune cookie the other night. The message inside read: Failure is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

Begin again more intelligently.

Frankly, I’m not used to much usable wisdom from fortune cookies and this surprised me. (Later I found out that Henry Ford actually said it first.)

Begin again. More intelligently. Both are hard to do when you fail. For a long time you feel like… well, a failure. Which is the way a lot of my friends and family who have been fired or struggled in business in recent years feel. Like a failure. Yet most were diligent and hard working in their jobs.

We’ve all failed. At least I have. Many times. Pick a category of life and I’ve failed. But the successes later have always come from beginning again.. more intelligently. Those are simply four amazing words.

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I depend on failure. As a strategy adviser, people expect me to be able to help figure out what went wrong and then straighten it out. To help them do better the next time. Bringing companies and leaders back from failure can be very satisfying. But there are dangers, a lesson I learned long ago.

“You need to know a few things,” the CEO told me. It was the first day of my first job (Marketing Director) after college many years ago.

“We tried direct mail and that didn’t work,” he told me. “We tried newspaper and radio advertising and neither worked for us.” The list went on to include everything you could imagine. “So,” he continued, “I don’t want to use any of those things. Good luck.”

There was practically nothing left to work with. What could I do?

Clearly they had failed because they did things wrong. I vowed to begin again more intelligently (although I hadn’t seen the fortune cookie then). And so I built a campaign that made direct mail, newspaper, radio and lots more work and drive revenues. A lot. I mean really a lot. Like having people lined up out the door to buy our stuff.

And then one day the CEO fired me. He didn’t appreciate having his failures pointed out to him. Somehow, despite my successes, I had failed.

When I could think clearly again, I knew I had to begin again… more intelligently this time. And that was when I decided to start my own business. I couldn’t count all the times I have failed since then. But I’ve tried to learn along the way.

What are the lessons about failure here? I believe there are at least three:

1. Failure isn’t final (as Zig Ziglar used to say). It’s a normal part of business. None of us can escape it — no matter how smart we are, or think we are.

2. Failure isn’t forever. Unless you stop. If you keep going — begin again — failure is simply a painful part of the journey.

3. More intelligently means just that. Figure out what went wrong and fix it the next time.

What can you do if you have failed as a leader? As a businessperson? Or just as a human being.

I have four words for you — from a fortune cookie...

Begin again.

More intelligently.