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You failed. Now what? How do you come back from that?

How do you overcome the fear of failure? Does failure even exist?

People may call me naive or dumb, but I don’t believe failure exists. Before you write me off, bear with me in this episode. I’m not saying things never go wrong, but I’ve removed the word “failure” from my vocabulary.

The way I choose to see it is this: I’ve found something that didn’t work. To me, that’s progress. Every experience that turns out other than the way we desire is an experience we can learn from.

In this episode, Ben and I are asked what we consider to be our biggest failures. I’ve struggled with the question, because I don’t think of things as failures. But when I mentally rephrase the question to, “What are some things you did that didn’t work out the way you want?” I immediately come up with stories to share.

Something happens midway through this episode. Suddenly, things get unlocked. We go deeper into the mindset behind how you think of failure.

One of the biggest things to remember is your work is not who you are. What you tried and the results of that isn’t who you are either. You are not the results of what you do.

We discuss handling repeated failure, when to know if you should quit, and what we learned from jumping in and doing things wrong.

Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins:
  • Failure is success in progress.
  • You’re guaranteed zero failures if you never try, but you’re also guaranteed zero successes.
  • If you want to be successful, there are going to be failures.
  • Successful people think in terms of reaching their goal, they don’t focus on the obstacles in their path.
  • Goals are there to propel you forward—once you get closer to a goal, it’s ok to go in a slightly different direction instead.
  • An obstacle means you’ve found one path that doesn’t work.
  • True failure is never starting at all or wrapping your identity in the results of something you did.
  • You are not the results of what you do.
  • Expect to have repeated failures until you’re successful.
  • Doing things wrong at first is learning, not failing.
Show Notes
  • 13:41 Sean: A failure is only a failure if we call it that. I don’t like the word “failure.” I’ve removed it from my vocabulary, because failure is success in progress.

How Do I Overcome the Fear of Failure?

  • 14:20 What is fear? Fear is the unknown. I’m not saying you’re not going to fail, but I can help you out with the fear of failure by reassuring you that you are going to fail. There is no unknown there. You don’t have to worry about about whether or not you’re going to fail.

You will have zero failures if you never try and you’ll also have zero successes.

If you want to be successful, there are going to be failures.

  • 15:07 Successful people don’t think in terms of failures. They don’t call something a failure until it’s a success. Have you ever observed ants in a line heading toward candy that was dropped? If you block their trail, they go crazy for a second but then they go around the rock. I see failure as those rocks coming in front of you. At any point, you can stop and say, “I can’t go forward anymore. This is where I was determined to head and now there’s a road block.” You give up, stop walking, turn around, and go home.
  • 16:13 Ben: People point to the rocks. I stumbled across an article I wrote about the aspirations I have and what I wanted to accomplish. I can look back at the things I wouldn’t call successes in my life based on what I was trying to do at the time, and I can point to the rocks. If I’m being honest with myself, it wasn’t the rocks that kept me from moving forward. It was my decision to stop because I didn’t want to push past, work around, or figure out a way to overcome the rocks. Successful people aren’t focused on the rocks. They don’t point to those obstacles or circumstances. They’re so fixed on their goal that the things blocking their way are just obstacles to be overcome, they’re not game-enders.

Defining Failure

  • 17:28 Sean: The literal definition of failure is, “Lack of success.” I don’t choose to accept a lack of success. That word doesn’t fit anything for me. If something doesn’t work, I’m iterating on it. With board games, you move forward if you answer the question correctly, draw the right card, or roll the right die combination. Even if you draw a penalty card, you keep going and you play again. You’re focused on the end-game.

Successful people think in terms of reaching their goal, they don’t focus on the obstacles in their path.

  • 18:53 Ben: If you’re working toward your goal and you’re experiencing obstacles over and over again, and eventually you get to a place where pursuing the goal is causing more damage than good, at what point should you stop pursuing it? At that point, you’re not as much about reaching the goal as you are able fighting the obstacles that come up and it’s damaging to your life.
  • 19:41 Sean: Do you think the goal is no longer valid or worth pursuing?
  • 19:49 Ben: It might be or maybe your priorities have changed. I’m thinking in terms of someone who has a growing family, where you might have wanted the idea of something and you worked toward that as a goal, but as your family grew, your priorities shifted because you care about your family more than you care about accomplishing that goal, so maybe that version of your goal is no longer compatible with what you care about now. The circumstances you’re in become the obstacle and that’s not something you should try to overcome or force into compatibility with something that no longer fits in your values.
  • 20:54 Sean: It’s great if we reach the goal and ultimately, we’d like to reach the goal, but in the meantime, it’s helping us make progress. Goals are there to propel us forward. Without the goal, if progress happens, it’s haphazard. The goal got you out of bed, and once you get closer, it’s ok to realize you want to shift your trajectory and go in a slightly different direction instead. Maybe that clarity wouldn’t have come if you had not gotten that much closer to the goal.
  • 21:52 The rock that came in front of your path may have given you a reset and you’re reevaluating the goal you had all along. Earlier, you were asking if you should keep going at it when failure after failure can be damaging, but I think it’s damaging if you’re too stubborn to realize what the failure is trying to tell you. The failure is trying to be a course correction, but if you’re seeing it as a roadblock and you’re giving up or banging your head into that rock because it was the way you were supposed to go, you need to listen to the course correction of that rock.

An obstacle means you’ve found one path that doesn’t work and you need to adjust your game.

  • 22:59 Go around the rock or if you can see the goal you want to get to just beyond the rock but it’s no longer what fits your situation, then change the goal.
  • 23:19 Ben: The goal is really there to motivate you and lead you to action, but the action really is the goal. Where I’ve had goals that are no longer compatible with my new circumstances, I learned things from pursuing those goals and not reaching them. I learned things from running into roadblocks that add value to my current experience and the way I interact with my family or do business. I can take every experience with me into the next thing, which is encouraging. Looking at roadblocks and thinking, “That was a part of my life that didn’t work out. I didn’t gain anything from it,” is a depressing way to look at it. The reality is, with the right perspective, you’ve gained something from that experience you can use in your current experience.
  • 24:40 Sean: Cory and I have talked about going into something with a mindset of, “What can I learn from this?” (Related: e171 6 Tips for Dealing With Confrontation).
  • 25:11 Cory: We were talking about haters that have already decided to hate on what you have to say. If you always disagree with that person, but you go into a conversation with them with an attitude of learning, you can find something they’re saying and use it in your life.
  • 25:35 Ben: I sent out emails yesterday to try to generate new business and get leads, and I talk briefly about services I have to offer and then I get into something that’s more valuable. I received a response back and it was clear the person had found the first thing they could say no to and focused on that without reading the rest of it. I wasn’t upset, I knew they had already made up their mind what they were going to say no to. If your mindset is that you’re not going to learn from something, you’re going to look for the first reason to quit. If your mindset is to push through the difficult stuff, you’re going to find the valuable things you can carry with you.

Failure Doesn’t Exist

  • 27:00 Sean: People say I’m naive, dumb, and not realistic, but I believe failure doesn’t exist. If you think I’m wrong, then you’re right, because it does exist for you if you believe in it. You’re seeing it as opportunity to quit and I see it as an opportunity to learn and reapply that to whatever I’m going for. If it’s just adjusting my strategy or helps me realize I want something else, I call it a success because I wouldn’t have discovered any of it without this supposed “failure.” I’m not ending at that point so failure doesn’t exist for me. I would like people to ask themselves:
    • What do I now know as a result of this situation?
    • What clarity did I gain from that event?
    • What might I try next considering what I discovered with that experience?
    • What alternative has that brought me closer to?

True failure is never starting at all or wrapping your identity in the results of something you did.

  • 28:23 Ben: I love the way you look at failures. Some people won’t take the time to examine places where they feel like they’re running into obstacles, because in the past it’s been a painful experience. You’re not saying to just brush it off and move forward though, it’s pausing and evaluating it for a moment. There’s a difference between beating yourself up over something or having your identity wrapped up in it, and being objective about what really took place—the decisions, circumstances, and actions that led to the roadblock you’re experiencing.
  • 29:34 In one case, you’re focused on your identity and you might say things like, “I’m a failure. I don’t deserve success,” but your identity doesn’t have anything to do with whether you experience roadblocks or “failure.” Examining it objectively is more like a math equation: this circumstance + these actions + these decisions = this outcome. They’re all variables in an equation and when you look at it that way, you can see what variables you can change to get a different outcome. If you look at it that way, you protect yourself from having negative self-talk.
  • 30:34 Sean: You look at it as, “This did not produce the desired results. What pieces that comprised this whole situation could be changed by my input? How can I adjust it and try it a different way?” Some examples of supposed “failures” are: “I quit my job, tried to freelance, and ended up having to move back in with my parents,” or, “I launched my first product, nobody bought it, and now I have all this inventory and a bunch of money sunk into something I won’t get back.”
  • 31:57 You can look at those situations and ask yourself why they didn’t work. You quit your job when you should have kept it and fueled your freelance pursuits part-time until it could sustain you. You were so desperate for money after quitting that you compromised and lowered your rates until eventually you couldn’t pay bills. Look at the situation objectively and see where you went wrong, instead of telling yourself that you’re a failure, freelancing doesn’t work, or you can’t pursue your passion.
  • 32:46 Ben: Think back to how your math teacher had you show your work. Even if you know the answer by looking at it without doing the work, you would get penalized if you didn’t show your work. The value in showing your work is that you take things that are simple and you break it down into more complex parts and the more you do that, the more you can see. The more you can see, the more you can tweak those little things that might have made the most difference. You only find those little things when you break down the problem.
  • 34:06 Sean: I think that answers Adam’s question, “Do you have any tips for figuring out why your idea failed?” Can an idea fail? I think it’s more the execution, but that’s not really what he’s asking.
  • 34:29 Ben: Sometimes you can break it down for yourself, but sometimes you get stuck and that’s when you need to find someone who has had those kinds of problems or experiences. Ask for help and likely, if they’ve gone through a similar obstacle before, they might be able to help you break it down further and point out the choices you made that lead to that outcome.
  • 35:23 Sean: He’s got a follow up question, “What’s the best way to support someone else when they’ve failed?” Be willing to help them break it down, but what’s more important than analyzing why it failed and what went wrong, is the mindset part—that’s the biggest thing. You need to remind this person that they’re not their failures and their identity shouldn’t be wrapped in the results of something they did, good or bad.

You are not the results of what you do.

  • 36:03 Your work is not who you are. What you tried and the results of that isn’t who you are either. Remind them of that and say, “It doesn’t matter. You found a way to do this that doesn’t work, so let’s take that information for what it’s worth, adjust, and try it again, or try something new.”

When Should You Quit?

  • 36:27 A good question from Sarah comes in here, “Are there things you should only try once? For example, if the Learn Lettering launch had failed, would you have tried to launch it again or would you have considered it done and tried something else?” I defined my own “failure” with this launch. I did some rough calculations of the audience I had, reasonable conversion rates, the fact my product was good, and effective pricing. Basically, if I made $35,000 on the launch, I thought it would be good, but in my mind, if I had made $20,000 it would have been a flop because I spent six months of my life working on it.
  • 37:58 I defined failure for me in that case, but if you’re not in a Scarcity Mindset where you have to do this thing and it has to make enough money to live off of, then anything less than that is going to be a failure to you. You shouldn’t be thinking in those terms. Maybe the results of this are the results and you should iterate on it, try it again, and slowly you get some traction. It does come down to your own expectations and I had expectations for that launch. It depends on where my mindset was at the time. It actually launched with $100,000, but I don’t know what I would have done if it only did $20,000 (Related: e60 How Learn Lettering Made $80,000 in 24 Hours With the First $10k in 30 Minutes). There was too much interest in lettering from my audience at the the time, so if it had done $20,000, I guess I would have assumed I did something wrong in the marketing or pricing departments.
  • 39:26 I would have recalculated and tried to launch it again. I don’t think I would have completely given up on it, because people were asking me for it. They wanted it, it wasn’t just me trying to make something. If people are trying to make something because they want to and they hope people buy it, instead of going off the demand or interest, then you can’t be surprised if it’s not well-received. In that case you would want to move onto something else. Look at the beginning: why did you make this in the first place and were those reasons valid? If they were, maybe you just need to recalculate.
  • 40:15 Ben: It has to do with how you define your goals too. If your goal was to have a successful Learn Lettering launch and it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to, you might continue pressing through that goal. If your goal is to have a successful product launch and this was your first stab at it, you can see the things you’ve learned from it. You may decide not to launch it again, but to launch something else in the future instead. Take what you’ve learned and apply it to the next thing you launch.

Handling Repeated Failure

  • 40:51 Sean: Cynthia asks, “How do you handle repeated failure?” You need to be sure you did this thing for the right reasons in the first place. If you’re passionate about something and you practice it—you enjoy the act of doing it—but you aren’t making money at it yet, you’ve probably got a day job. For this example, let’s assume it’s a day job that’s providing the functional service of covering bills and it’s not draining your creative energy. If it’s the wrong kind of day job and it’s draining your creative energy, you would want to switch that day job (Related: e137 The Overlap Technique: A Crash Course).
  • 42:19 You’ve got your day job and you’ve got your passion, then you decide to do your passion full-time. If you want to be successful, expect to have repeated failures until you’re successful. You handle it by treating it as course-correction, as long as the initial thing is done for the right reasons. Keep going around every obstacle in your path—that’s how you handle repeated failure. Choose to believe it doesn’t exist. You’re simply finding things that don’t work. It’s like pinball, moving back and forth between each thing until you get to where you want to be, but you’re always moving forward. You have to expect repeated failure.
  • 43:46 Ben: At some point, you might feel like you’re hitting so many obstacles that you can’t imagine anyone else who has been successful having to go through that many. You’re justified in feeling this way, but the truth is that you don’t know what other people have experienced or what obstacles they’ve overcome. It’s likely that the people who have experienced success have experienced as many obstacles as you, but they’re focus isn’t on the obstacles. Their focus is on their goal and the obstacles are just an opportunity to overcome, learn, and continue working toward what they want to get to. I understand that feeling, but don’t let that feeling make you thing there’s something wrong. It’s normal to experience failure after failure.

Doing Things Wrong Is Learning, Not Failing

  • 45:01 Sean: Daniela asks, “What would you and Ben consider to be your biggest failure? It would be interesting to hear how both of you define failure in terms of where you differ and where you are the same.”
  • 45:28 Ben: We were working on an album and at the time, we were working with an organization that provides aid to children all over the world. We decided to donate all the profits from this album to this organization, so we raised support to record it and someone even donated a large amount of money that made it possible for us to fly out to the studio. We did a small run of 1,000 copies but after releasing the album, we had raised a disappointingly small amount for the organization. Shortly after that, we got busy with the family and things dried up, and I didn’t push through those things to see that effort through to what I had originally envisioned. It still haunts me to the extent that if I were to obtain wealth, I would want to donate whatever I thought the band would have raised had it been successful to make up for what we didn’t do.
  • 47:51 Sean: Does it feel like something still sitting there, like a failure in your past, or have you processed it to recognize what you could glean from that situation? Is there a takeaway for you?
  • 48:10 Ben: No. Honestly, I know there is a takeaway, but I haven’t processed it yet. Maybe you have things like that from your past and when you carry it with you instead of working through it, it comes into play in your mindset and the way you experience new obstacles. You can’t pretend it doesn’t effect you, you’ve got to deal with those things. People might think I’m a hypocrite for saying this stuff when I haven’t actually done it.
  • 48:58 Sean: We go through stages of internalizing messages, values, and beliefs. First passively, then actively, then internalizing it, eventually regurgitating it, and ultimately, believing it and living it. I don’t think it’s hypocritical for people to speak the way they want to believe something. That’s a part of the journey.
  • 49:37 Ben: I need to do the work of sitting down and taking each of those scenarios and asking myself, “What really happened? Beyond my pointing to the circumstances of the equation, what are the other pieces that I’m not dealing with?”
  • 49:58 Sean: You’re not the results of that project—what you did for it or how it went. There’s a lot of factors, like time, context, and people. Sometimes things just miss each other. You found something that didn’t work right then, that way, at that time. It may not have even been things you did wrong, but either way, you’re not a failure for that. When I look back on the things I’ve done, I have a hard time coming up with failures. I don’t really think I have failed, and I know a lot of other people think that of me. They’ll say, “Easy for you to say, Sean. You haven’t really failed!” I’ve never fallen on my face, but I don’t see a lot of the failures because of the way I was thinking at the time.
  • 52:00 When I switch the wording to, “Do I remember some things that did’t work?” suddenly, all these things come to mind. I’ve launched products where there was no response and we broke even or lost money there. It can be argued that my first business was a success because it worked and it made money, but I see everything for it’s potential. If something is making $10,000, it’s not an objective success or failure. It’s just $10,000 and it’s relative. If I see the potential for more and it’s not living up to it’s potential, that’s when I say it isn’t working.
  • 52:55 With my computer repair business, I hired one guy to do the work because I wanted to start a web firm. We never tried to get more work or more guys and it could have been such a huge asset for me right now. I could have a computer repair empire running on autopilot right now had I done things differently and made smarter decisions. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now, doing what I’m doing, had I not learned those lessons by going out there and starting a business at age 17.

I learned so much from jumping in and doing things wrong a lot.

  • 53:54 Eventually, I started a partnership web firm and things didn’t end up working out. By all definitions of the word, that partnership was a failure. I see so many things I learned from that and I realize I wouldn’t be where I am without that. It was all forward momentum for me. I learned so much from that situation that it feels silly to call it a failure. The lessons I got out of it were so valuable.
  • 54:43 Ben: When you asked the question, I was having a hard time thinking of what you would call a failure, but I’ve heard how you talk about your computer repair business and web firm. Depending on your mindset, you could have had a very different experience with those things. You could have let those things define you and define the way you do things now. I’ve allowed that to happen unintentionally sometimes. That’s what happens though when you’re not intentionally allowing your mindset to be in a more positive place. If you don’t think about those experiences as lessons instead of defining moments, then you’re in danger of allowing those experiences to define the way in which you’re going to move forward. “I failed at that so I’m probably going to fail at this.” You may not say it that way but it’s in the back of your mind unless you deal with it.
  • 55:56 Sean: In the most recent Lambo Goal episode, we talked about being outside your comfort zone. I’m really outside my comfort zone because I’m applying what I learned from those past businesses that I did wrong, which is what some people might call failures. I didn’t hire and I was trying to do everything myself. I was too scared to hire because I didn’t have enough work to hire someone and I never did it. This time I’ve decided to hire when it’s scary and it hurts the bank a little bit. I’m in that uncomfortable scenario, but by applying the lesson I learned from doing it the wrong way, I’m believing that things are going to turn out better this time.
  • 56:53 I’m waiting to see how that turns out. If that goes bad because I hired a bunch of people and then ended up without enough money for payroll, I’m going to look at that and say, “I hired when it hurt, but maybe I shouldn’t just hire when it hurts because apparently you can hire too soon.” I would dive in and analyze. In this case, I don’t think I’m risking that because I know the calculated investments I’m making, but if it were to happen, I’m going to take a lesson from it and apply it the next time. seanwes will never be a failure, even if it’s run into the ground. It will never be a failure because there’s so much I’ve learned. I’ll never stop doing business. If it’s not seanwes, I’ll start the next thing. No matter how it plays out—which I can’t see as being anything other than a huge success—I’m not worried. If seanwes failed, I wouldn’t even look back and think of it as a failure.