The F-Word

 Let's talk about failure today.


A quick Google search for the meaning of the word FAILURE brings up the following definitions:

 [Photo: Google Search]

Many, many start-up advice sites, articles, columns and books - not to mention speakers - bring up a fact that most of us who have a passing acquaintance with start-ups have heard:

"90% of start-ups fail."

There are multiple sources of information, addressing various ways to succeed, to avoid failure, to recover from failure. There are also many, many collections of stories of the various obstacles faced and overcome, or learnt from, that we read and feel inspired by. I don't plan for this post to be one of either, because a) the others are pretty comprehensive and come from people much better placed to give that advice than I, and b) we will be shifting the lens a tiny bit and looking at something else.


I'm not comfortable with failure. Not many people are. I'd much rather succeed. Most people prefer success over failure. One thing I've noticed, however, is that my concepts of success and failure are usually defined by how others define success. When I was in school, success was defined by teachers and parents as getting top marks in class, and "doing well" in extra-curricular activities. Prizes and ranks.

In college, too, success is usually defined in terms of how well you do in your exams. And whether you get a job right after you're done with your course.

At work, success is usually equated with how much you are paid, and/or your job title.

In our "personal" lives, success is defined - by society - as finding a partner, staying together, raising a family, and then round two, starting from school and all the way up to marriage and babies, but with the next generation.

Failure is usually defined as not achieving - or retaining - one or more of such externally defined positions.

This is NOT a bad thing. For those of us who are comfortable with a framework that makes sense to us, this is a very good thing. For those of us who are looking for a framework to live by, this is an excellent option. Life is hard enough to figure out without having to add to the unknowns. Everyone is just trying their best, and kudos to each of us for doing what we do!

There are, of course, some people who do not follow the usual framework, but who seem to be content with what they do, and happy in having achieved what they have achieved. These people come from all walks of life. Contentment is not the exclusive property of the rich and famous (if at all theirs, which is another question altogether). We all know people like this - they beam and they smile and they are at peace with themselves, their careers, their choices and surroundings. They are confident of their success.

I was recently thinking along these lines during a late-night, solitary brain-storming session. I Googled "what is success?" and the screen showed some not-too confident responses:
[Photo: Google Search]

A stunning realisation then shimmered into focus: Google doesn't seem to be as definitive about success as it is about failure!

Something else that struck me whilst reading these answers is that not many people I know, including myself, have defined for ourselves what success is to us. And more importantly, neither have we outlined our own definition of failure.

I realised that, as an entrepreneur, it would help me tremendously if I decided what success and failure mean to me, personally and for my start-up.

Of course, I have thought of (and written down) my short, medium and long-term goals for my start-up. Aeka's mission, vision and values have been spelt out, and all of these are constantly revisited and updated as the company grows and the team learns.

But I had not, till that night, tried to define what I as an entrepreneur could and could not accept my company becoming. What, to me, then, would be the mark of failure for my start-up? 

The answer to this question, and the corollary, for success, proved to lift a great deal of doubt and worry from my mind.

(For those interested: The answer that I came up with was: I want Aeka to thrive without harming the environment, and for it to help people. So, to me, success would be having Aeka create a positive shift in the society and for the environment (i.e. being a "force for good"), and failure would be the company losing its core value of eco-consciousness.

This might not seem like an inspiring example. It is, however, something that is humongously important to me personally.)

Each of us values things, concepts and people differently. Each of us, therefore, would have different definitions of success and failure. Find your own. Make sure that the battle you are fighting is the battle you want to win. Else victory might not bring satisfaction. And remember - failure is not a bad word, nor a bad thing.

[WARNING: I am not an expert in any area, and all views expressed in here are only my opinion, or my take on things based on my experiences, to be remembered if useful, and promptly forgotten if not. This article is NOT meant as a substitute for expert advice in respective domains as required.]


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