Fail Forward

Any successful person you meet will have a story of failure to tell you, and actually probably more than one. What separates the truly successful from those who skate by in life is not just what they learn from those failures well after they happen, but also how they handle those failures as they happen. These are delicate situations that can literally make or break a person’s life for a long time to come.

I’m about to tell you a story of how I faced a very difficult situation of failure which I could do very little about, and how I was able to turn that failure into an eventual long-term success.

Rewind to 2007

I’m running a six figure IT consulting business. My partner and I are securing contract after contract each month, building our portfolio of business from nothing a couple of years prior, to approaching $300,000 in annual revenue. We’re adding multiple streams of revenue, building a book of recurring commissions, and simply crushing it each and every day.

Then… Boom. The crash of 2008 hits and business starts to slow greatly.

Long story short, we lose a big chunk of our business, company morale plummets, and the market for our services just isn’t the same.

To make matters worse, the clients that we do have left become more demanding of our time, and essentially make our lives quite unhappy.

I was still making decent money and still liked what I did to a point, but my partner wasn’t in it mentally anymore, and rightfully so. The work had become pretty stressful. It was then that I realized it wasn’t going to work out for the long term.

So smack dab in the middle of the worst economic crisis in the past 75 years, I decided to sell my shares of the company and set out to find a new venture – something I knew I was going to make a life out of.

That was probably the most difficult decision I had ever made in my life. I was going from being a powerful business owner with a really nice income, to being unemployed and having no income at all. And you don’t get unemployment benefits when you sell a small business.

I somehow had to break that news to my girlfriend at the time (who I’ll soon be married to). I was in the middle of graduate school with an expensive tuition payment approaching, and to top it all off, my business partner was none other than my brother.

It was a difficult time indeed, but I had to make a change. So I made the difficult decision to accept failure and put this venture in my past. And I knew I had to “fail forward.”

Fail Forward?

This is a concept that all successful and effective people do well. They understand that sometimes failure is necessary. They understand that sometimes change is needed. And they understand that just because a particular venture, experiment, or project didn’t work out in their lives, that doesn’t mean it’s the complete end of the world.

And I knew that this was one of those times. I knew I had to fail forward.

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I had faith in myself that I’d be ok. I always had 100% belief in myself that I’d find my calling. Even when some of the closest people in my life questioned my decision, even when people told me I was an idiot for doing what I did, there wasn’t one single second that I ever regretted it. I knew I had to move on.

The Next Chapter

Over the course of the next year or so I struggled to make ends meet as I worked to finish my graduate degree and tried to land a job in the IT field. I had a bit of money saved up, and had a side project going that I made a little bit extra with, but that didn’t make up for all of my monthly expenses, not even close.

My back up fund was dwindling, and there was no end in sight, at least no end that anyone else could see.

Some people told me I should put my graduate degree aside while I looked for work, but I knew that was only going to hold me back in the future. That would only make it harder to go back to school once I did find something. And truthfully that was one of the few positive situations I had in my life at that point. I needed it to stay in a good mindset.

It was all really tough. I’m sure I wasn’t a wonderful person to be around, but I kept going. I kept my faith alive. I kept networking. I kept bettering myself. I kept seeking my dream job.

When I needed money I worked odd jobs, temporary jobs, sold my possessions, and even tried insurance sales as a way to make ends meet (which was awful). I actually had a few offers along the way, but none of it was what I really wanted to do. So I kept looking.

And then something happened. I got the email that turned my life around.

That email notified me that I got an internship that I applied for at a growing small business in Louisville, KY. It paid peanuts compared to what I was used to at my IT business, but it was a great opportunity, I knew it was something that I would love, and it was genuinely something I could make a career out of.

So I immediately went to work there. It was only a part-time gig, but I saw what it could lead to. So I dug in, learned and implemented everything I knew that applied to their business, and eventually used my skills with online marketing to essentially double their book of business over the next year or so.

When I finally finished graduate school and received my MBA I was hired on full-time there, got a pretty nice raise, and started to make a decent living.

I actually felt pretty good about myself at that point. It was a good job, but it wasn’t ever going to work out to be a solid long-term situation. The people were great and the company was great, but the resources of the small business life were slim. I knew I could do better. So while I was working there I kept looking, all while still failing forward.

And then it all came together.

The Breakthrough

A few months later I got a call from a large company in town where I had a connection that I had made in graduate school (which I wouldn’t have made had I postponed finishing). They had heard of my skills and wanted to see if I would fit in with their marketing team.

After about two months of exploratory interviews, I went to work there under the terms of a “post-graduate co-op” agreement. The US economy was still so tough at that time that many companies still weren’t guaranteeing jobs even when you already worked for them, and especially for new hires.

It was a “try before you buy” type of situation.

So this was a pretty big leap of faith for me. It paid about the same, yet I still had to prove myself and do amazing work if it was going to work out.

It was at that point where my belief in myself became hugely important. If I hadn’t been fully confident in my abilities I probably wouldn’t have gone for it.

But I was and I saw a really good long-term opportunity at that company. So I decided to take that leap of faith.

After about 6 months in this high pressure situation, I had proven my worth to the company and they hired me on full time as a Web Project Manager, and at a salary that paid significantly more than I had ever made.

I had finally recovered. I had finally finished failing forward.

That all took place over about a four year period and finally things were ok.

Let’s Rewind and Reflect

Rewind to when I left my business in 2008.

Had I not made that conscious decision to “fail forward,” to make a huge long-term change that I knew was going to be tough to do, to continue to improve myself and my skills along the way, there is no way I would be where I am today.

It was because of that faith, that mindset that my failure was going to lead to better things, that I ultimately succeeded.

That is what I want you to takeaway from this story.

Some people will tell you that failure is not an option, and I think that mindset is great for determination, but the fact is that sometimes things just aren’t in your control, and you might fail.

If that does happen in your life, I want you to recognize that failure as a good thing. Recognize it as an opportunity to start fresh and improve yourself.

Make that conscious decision to ‘fail forward.’ Figure out what you need to do to get to the next chapter in your life, and use that opportunity become greater than you ever were before.

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