One experience I used to be ashamed of was how I gave up on being self-employed about five months after I started. My initial experience starting my coaching business in 2002 was a time when my emotions ranged from euphoria to near terror. There were exhilarating moments landing my first few clients and speaking to groups – once I even sang a song to introduce my business at a chamber event and won an award for it. There was the thrill of going to my first Toastmasters meetings to improve my speaking skills; every time I drove down the hill towards the restaurant where we met for lunch, my mouth would literally dry up in anticipation of having to stand up and speak.
I remember the joy of sitting in coffee shops helping people create goals that were not just 8/10 goals but ones they were really, really excited about. I had left my teaching job in Wisconsin, returned to England, and moved to Albuquerque – where I knew nobody. At times it felt vindicating to frequently discover incredible views from the top of the Sandia Mountains and explore a completely different city in the desert rich with American Indian culture.
I recall driving around town listening to Networking with Millionaires by Thomas J Stanley on repeat and feeling like I was learning about a world I never knew existed growing up around schoolteachers. I was fascinated. I remember walking into a large corporate building for a meeting and marveling at what on earth I was doing – how I had literally walked into a new world I never thought I’d experience. Just once, I recall treating myself to a meal at a restaurant after landing a new client and sitting outside looking up at the sunset over the mountains and feeling, for a few moments anyway, that I had “arrived”, that my big risk was worthwhile.
But the stark contrast was not just living outside my comfort zone: I was living in a frequent panic zone – trying to make ends meet as a business novice in an industry nobody had heard of (what was then called life coaching before it got itself a bad name) with no network or friends in one of the poorest cities in the country with a high crime rate to match.
For a week, I washed dishes at a Route 66 diner. I got a part-time job at a book shop and taught an improv comedy class in the evenings. I had no health insurance, and when I walked my dog on the trails, I was in constant fear she would either clumsily shove her nose in a rock crevice and get bitten by a rattlesnake or pick up the bubonic plague and transmit its fleas to me (yes, that really did kill a handful of people each year in New Mexico at that time – no idea whether that’s still the case). I lived in a cheap apartment with no furniture except a desk and I slept on the floor. And I spent money on two high-quality suits so I could look the part of a successful coach at networking events.
After five months, I was $2000 in debt and felt completely ashamed. I had never been in debt before. I had even cashed out my small teacher retirement money at high expense. I remember sitting on a concrete parking block by my car outside a fast-food restaurant feeling that I had completely dishonored my deceased father, who had always taught me financial frugality. Not long after this, I got back in my car with my tail between my legs and drove back to Wisconsin, where I had lived before, and started picking up substitute teaching work.
It took me several months to pay off my debt, and it was the following summer when I chanced across a book in the career change section called Road Trip Nation. It was a collection of interviews with high achievers in various fields done by two traveling college students who had rented a mobile home for the summer. I was inspired by what the contributors had to say and took copious notes. When I went back through these interviews – and I did this unwittingly as it wasn’t something I usually did – I actually decided to pay attention to which piece of advice was mentioned the most. I’ve no idea why. When I tallied everything up, the most frequently mentioned point by far was that failure should be expected and that it was simply part of the journey. That everybody failed. In fact, the people who got the furthest had failed even more than everyone else. The only difference was that they hadn’t given up.
This was a complete revelation to me. “It’s normal?” I thought to myself. “How is this possible? How did I not know that?” I had found the going tough early on with my business and, when it wasn’t an almost immediate success, I had truly come to a conclusion that “this must not be for me” and that “I wasn’t destined to ever be good in business.”
I wondered: How come I hadn’t learned growing up that failure was normal? Did nobody teach me this or did I just manage not to pay attention to this? I reflected on my sporting experiences and how we certainly didn’t win every rugby game and, while this was always disappointing, it wasn’t shameful. “Wait, that means I can try again!” I said to myself. “I don’t have to put up with a life I don’t particularly enjoy. Wow!”
This was such a foreign concept: Everybody fails.
It’s crucial to have a healthy way to handle ‘failures’. You can decide what true failure is. You can come up with your own definition. We all make mistakes. No one is perfect. When we are younger, it’s common to define some failures or losses as earth-shattering and final – professionally and personally (yes, I made that mistake too!)
Some people don’t use the word failure at all. They reframe it as ‘a lesson learned’. It may be one of the biggest cliches, but we all learn far more from our failures than our successes. That’s really the message. What did you do right? What do you need to do better or differently next time?
Then regroup and go out and do it again – also aware of the Haitian proverb: “Beyond mountains, there are mountains” – in other words, don’t be gutted to see more mountains after you get to the top of your next mountain. (I know almost none of us wants to digest that, but it’s for the best).
The bottom line is really this: don’t give up on yourself. And when you fail – because you will – how do you bounce back? How quickly do you get up after you’ve been knocked down?
Do whatever works for you so long as you continue to mine your own gold.
Remind yourself: Everybody fails. It’s part of everybody’s journey. It’s on everybody’s recipe for success. You can decide how to define failure – not anyone else. Sometimes it’s the only way you can learn an important lesson – It’s just one of your teachers. And the highest achievers fail the most.
To learning from failure!
Founder & President
Matt Anderson International
1177 Oak Ridge Drive, Glencoe, IL 60022, USA
Phone: +001 (312) 622-3121