On the Importance of Failure
We automatically associate failure with negative. If we've failed, we've disappointed friends and family, we might have lost money or reputation, and we might have dented our self-esteem. But take a look under the surface, and it turns out that failure is a necessary stepping stone to success.
This article was originally posted at For Working Ladies.
It’s something we’ve been taught since primary school – succeeding is good, and failing is bad.
But recently, that narrative is changing, especially within the entrepreneurial world. As unnatural as it might feel to the perfectionists amongst us, a slew of famous business owners have recently spoken out publicly about their professional failures, and more importantly, how these failures have ended up as learning gold dust.
It’s an unfortunate and well-known fact that women are more likely than men to suffer from imposter syndrome. Last year, Forbes reported that two thirds of women in the UK feel inadequate in their work environment, while men were 18% less likely to feel the same way. This is a problem in its own right, and a consequence is that it can feel harder for women to publicly admit to failures in their professional lives. But as high-profile female-focused brands like The Wing and Bumble work so hard to point out, representation matters. Women publicly admitting their failures can help other women, showing them that they’re not alone, and that failure is both a valid and valuable part of the entrepreneurial journey. Tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jack Ma and Steve Jobs publicly own their failure all the time, bragging about dropping out of college, endless unsuccessful job applications, and business experiments that went disastrously (and expensively) wrong. It’s time for women to do the same, and it seems like the tide is already turning.
Women publicly admitting their failures can help other women, showing them that they’re not alone, and that failure is both a valid and valuable part of the entrepreneurial journey.
This year, the journalist Elizabeth Day published her book “How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong”, based on her popular podcast of the same name. Day’s book focuses on failure in all aspects of life, not just work, and her central message is that we are not defined by failure, but rather how to respond to it. She notes that failure has taught her some of the most important life lessons and that it’s something to be celebrated rather than feared. Her podcast guests include Otegha Uwagba, Lily Allen, Gina Miller and Dolly Alderton, who all share their own stories about what their failures have taught them. The success of Day’s podcast and book is a testament to the taboo slowly cracking open, allowing women to share their own failures with friends and colleagues without fearing how it could impact them negatively.
Another great example of public failure-turned-success is Sophia Amoruso, who founded the now infamous fashion brand Nasty Gal. Amoruso was the original rebellious girl success story: after quitting university and getting fired from a number of dead-end jobs, she started selling vintage finds on eBay for a massive mark-up. Capitalising on her ability to spot designer items amongst piles of clothes in thrift stores, Amoruso started Nasty Gal, eventually designing and manufacturing clothes for the brand herself. In a handful of years, Amoruso went from being a college dropout unable to hold down a job at a fast-food outlet, to being CEO of a company valued at $350 million.
At the height of the company’s success, Nasty Gal had 300 employees and over $100 million in annual revenue. Then, things went horribly wrong. Unable to manage such a fast-growing company, Nasty Gal’s board of directors encouraged Amoruso to step down. Souring relations with long-standing employees, along with financial mismanagement, gave way to bankruptcy, and Nasty Gal filed for Chapter 11 (bankruptcy proceedings in America). In an extreme example of things going downhill, in a six month period Amoruso went from being featured on the cover of Forbes, to being bankrupt and on the verge of divorce. She’d be forgiven for wanting to give up after such a tumultuous string of events.
Instead, Amoruso channelled the lessons she had learnt into her new brand, Girlboss. Girlboss is an organisation that emboldens and encourages women to go after their professional goals, through both online and offline content. Amoruso now hosts annual Girlboss Rallies in Los Angeles and New York City, bringing together some of the world’s most powerful women including Gwyneth Paltrow, Sara Blakely, Jen Rubio, and Payal Kadakia. Being grateful for her failures is a common theme in Amoruso’s speeches, and she gives back to the community by acting as a mentor for female entrepreneurs such as Cyndi Ramirez, founder of NYC’s Chillhouse.
Since entrepreneurship is such a volatile, uncertain field, failure is most like a ‘when’, rather than an ‘if’.
This is evident in the way that many of the startup world’s most popular working methods, such as Lean Startup and Agile Methodology, actively plan in room for failure in the form of experimentation. The ideas of A/B testing and pivoting in entrepreneurship can be helpful places for perfectionists to start – these methods allow you to fail in a more structured way. Since the focus is on keeping the aspects of the product or service that work well, and ditching those that don’t, pivoting means that through trying and failing, you end up with an improved offering for your customers. With an active switch in mindset, reframing the stigma around failure, we can learn to appreciate the ‘bad’ parts of running a business just as much as the ‘good’ parts.
Not letting failure dent our confidence as female business owners teaches us resilience and helps us to be all-round better entrepreneurs. So the next time failure strikes at work, we should all take a leaf from Amoruso and Day’s books, and remember that no matter how bad the situation might feel, we can turn it around and come out on the other side with a stronger business and renewed determination to smash our goals.