How to deal with failure

failed it book cover


How to deal with failure

By Jonathan Frenkel

The economic outlook for the coming months does not look particularly rosy, especially for those who graduated this spring. There may not be a robust job market to enter, and as such, graduates may be thrust into the deep waters of having to learn how to create a career for themselves, by themselves. Youth does not need to be “wasted” on the young as many students will emerge from their studies with a more sophisticated view of the world than previous generations. And with time on your hands and lack of good job opportunities, you may now have the chance to launch that startup you’ve been dreaming about.

Realistically speaking, what starts out optimistically may not end as well, and the survival rate for early stage startups is dismal. A snapshot of “data from the BLS shows that approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more.” This is just a fact of life, and while businesses can fail for several reasons, at the end of the day a founder (or founders) of a startup must deal with the emotional fallout of this experience. There has been a trend that emanated from Silicon Valley to glorify failure as if it’s something desired, or even sought after. Sadly, failure is a painful process and should be avoided. As well-known PayPal founder and investor Peter Thiel states “every time a company fails it is not a beautiful working out of the Darwinian free market and it is not a fantastic educational experience for all involved. Every death is a tragedy and that is even true of deaths of companies.”

Building a business or doing anything worthwhile is difficult, and if one believes it’s a pleasant thing to blog about, they’re not in it for the long haul or the right reasons. A founder should push through and do whatever they can to make sure their business survives. Nonetheless, if you want to be an entrepreneur and do amazing things you need to accept that failure is a fact of life. You will have to stand on the mountain of no’s before you get one yes, so come prepared with the right mindset.

Know that it's OK, and you'll be OK

This may be the first time you’ve encountered a setback, the operative word being setback. Every single successful entrepreneur has dealt with failure and setbacks. However, it’s not that failure doesn’t happen, it’s about what the person does in response. Are they going to sit and feel sorry for themselves and give up? Or are they going to push through, learn from their mistakes and go on to do something bigger and better? Everyone deals with obstacles, but winners push through despite it all.

Dealing with what may seem like the end of the world, intense emotions happening within, and possible shame will be tough. But “this too will pass” and know that time and action, even small steps every day, taking care of yourself, and thinking about the day after will start to remedy what has transpired. History is littered with people with big egos who couldn't get out of their own way and did not let themselves pick up and try again. You do not need to be one of those people as you have the perspective to know that you are strong enough to bounce back by taking positive steps in the right direction.

Processing failure through self-care

Self-care is an important part of being an entrepreneur as you’re running a marathon and not a sprint. Sleeping enough, working out, and eating healthy are all part of managing your mental state when you’re going through the challenging process of building a business. When you’ve dealt with a failure like the closing of your business or being let go from a position there needs to be a way to process the difficult emotions that are likely to follow.

An effective way to deal with any difficult emotions, and maybe even process the situation that has just transpired, is to work out. An intense workout, alongside a healthy diet, can help someone cope with the day to day initial regret that accompanies failure. Journaling and writing down everything are actions that help the brain process trauma other ways cannot. It’s not a magic cure but one may find writing down what happened makes it less painful and gives the mind a way to get all those negative feelings out on a piece of paper. As this article highlights “writing about anger, sadness and other painful emotions helps to release the intensity of these feelings. By doing so you will feel calmer and better able to stay in the present.”

Give things time and space

There is some truth to the “idea that time heals all wounds”; that what may seem intense and cause severe discomfort when it occurs will eventually fade. This is difficult as we often want these feelings to go away immediately or to occupy our time with something that masks those feelings. But time is necessary to process and make sense of what happened, as well as learn any lessons (see below).

Space is another important concept. It’s not about running away, but taking some space, a breather to collect yourself, could also prove to be beneficial. Some people change locations for a time, but if that’s not possible even taking a walk or changing your environment can help. Getting out of our heads by taking positive steps like journaling is one thing, but sometimes you

Look for the meaning and the lessons

Philosophers such as the Stoics prepared for the worst, and there are so many lessons to be learned from their experiences in ancient Greece and Rome. Throughout history, people have been able to overcome what seemed like life-ending failures, and they were able to use these setbacks as rocket fuel to propel them to greatness. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius stated “the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” These words encapsulate the essence of failure: it’s just another opportunity to learn.

It’s important to reframe failure, and to understand what risk entails. One does not fail; they succeed because they try. And not like “try” where everyone gets a prize for participating, but because you put yourself out there. We tend to tie our whole identities to one or two failures that happen in our lifetimes, when the reality is that we need to try things and really understand our life’s true mission. We embark on a path because society, our parents, our peers, etc. tell us it’s the “right” thing to do. It may be for them, but not for us. Failure is life’s way of nudging us towards where we need to be to truly complete our life’s mission.

Find a community

There can be no two ways about this. You will struggle with setbacks, and failures if you want to build something great. It is a lonely journey, especially if you’re an entrepreneur without a co-founder. A partner or co-founder can row the boat along with you when you feel you’re lost at sea. There are, of course, downsides in having a partner as well. But a community of people who help you and listen when you struggle is important.

Tenacity is a trait needed to persevere, but so are people who will join you on this marathon. Sometimes it is hard to bounce back, hard to start again, and be tenacious. That is why having a community that supports your efforts, whether that be a group of fellow entrepreneurs, a religious group, or even your peers from university is vital for your ultimate success and mental health. This idea of the lone wolf entrepreneur who flies against the conventions of society is maybe good content for an Ayn Rand novel, but is far from the truth. It does take a village, or a community, to help young entrepreneurs on their long journey, so it’s important to turn to your friends when you need solace.

Today, failure is approached in two ways, either as something swept under the rug or glorified. Both views are unhealthy as failure is a very normal and natural part of life, like death. It is not bad or good, it just is. When you learn to accept that, and lean into it, the ultimate outcome will be less debilitating. When it does not own you, you are free to truly go where you need in order to succeed. Upon reflection, world famous author J.K. Rowling stated it best that “it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

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