What do you do when you’re about to fail?

In getting things done by neville

You’re about to fail.

I suspect you’ve been there. Either in business or in life – but you’re facing the fact that what you’ve been working at so hard is about to fail. You’re extended to the max on your credit cards, your sales funnel looks more like a sales straw and the stress is eating you up. It’s months of toil and trouble and little bits of success here and there – but it’s about to fall apart.

What do you do?

Enter Sir Richard

Yesterday I was privileged to see Sir Richard Branson speak at the first Energy Disruptors event in Calgary. The two-day event is the brainchild of a former coaching client of mine, and brings together some of the smartest minds in the world to talk about the future of energy. And how it is being disrupted.

Getting Sir Richard to the conference is a story in itself. But the founders of the event managed to get him to make the trip and spend a couple of hours in single and panel discussions.

Sir Richard’s contribution to the conference is significant. His participation and support obviously lends credibility to the event. But more importantly his experience as an entrepreneur and disruptor fits right in with the theme of the conference – disrupting the energy industry.

Learning from the masters

One of the greatest things about hearing Sir Richard speak is the stories and back stories. He is prolific in so many ways – including some 68 near-misses with death in his adventures with balloons, boats and other high-risk endeavours.

During the 1-on-1 talk with Sir Richard the interviewer (Holly Ransom of Emergent) one of the questions was this:

What do you do when you’re about to fail?

Holly had asked the question in the context of disrupting the energy industry, specifically mentioning high-risk ventures that struggle to get off the ground. Rather than answer the question directly, Sir Richard answered it with a story.

In 1991 Sir Richard attempted to cross the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon. His companion was Pers Lindstrand. This epic adventure is now well documented – everything went wrong. They lost one third of their propane fuel along the way and were literally faced with a life-and-death decision – ditch into the sea with no help nearby or try to reach land. And to do that they had to break all speed records before they ran out of fuel.

Even with everything going wrong they eventually succeeded. Rather than making landfall near Los Angeles, they landed far north in Canada.

So what do you do when you’re about to fail?

Sir Richard’s answer to the question was simple:

When you’re faced with failure, you have a choice. You can curl up and die, or you can fight. You can fight for your life, or you can give up and die.

He was not speaking only of life-threatening situations. He was also speaking about business and our desire to build something of value. To make the world a better place.

When you’re faced with failure, you can choose to give up – curl up and die – or fight for success. I’ve been there. Faced imminent failure, and failed. Faced imminent failure, fought and succeeded. More than once. And it’s in both the failures and the successes that I’ve learnt the most and grown the most.

Sometimes we have to fail to learn what we’re capable of

We don’t learn when things are going perfectly to plan. If things are going to plan, they’re just what we expect. Nothing out of the ordinary is happening and we’re just cruising along.

But when things go wrong we start learning. We have to figure out what happened, why it happened, how to fix it and how to prevent it from happening again. This is all uncharted territory – places we’ve never been before and we’re discovering for the first time. This is where we truly learn.

In one of his blog posts Sean D’Souza talks about talent:

We somehow like to believe we’re special, but for the most part, talent is just a reduction of errors. If you find the errors, you can fix them. The fewer errors you make, the better you are at completing a task. Fewer errors result in greater efficiency.

So how does this relate to what to do when you’re faced with imminent failure?

When we’re failing we’re also learning

When you’re faced with imminent failure you’re also learning the most, the fastest – and in the hardest way possible. You’re learning lessons you will never forget.

Many successful entrepreneurs have a bankruptcy in their past (I have). I stretched too far, knew too little and made mistakes – but boy did I learn from the process. Every single entrepreneur that I’ve spoken with on this topic agreed that it was a hard, tough and sometimes even paralysing way to learn – but the lessons we learnt there we’ll never forget.

You don’t have to go bankrupt to learn. We learn from every adversity, every challenge and everything that goes wrong. And in the process we learn, grow stronger and become better able to handle problems the next time they come around.

Some people refer to this process as the school of life or the school of hard knocks. Whatever you call it, recognise that when you’re failing you’re also learning – although the lesson may only become apparent some time later.

What do you do when you’re about to fail?

You have a choice. You can either curl up and die, or you can fight. In business, failure does not mean death – even though it may feel like you’d rather die.

If you choose to fight, know that you can still fail. But at least you will have learnt just how hard you can work, just how inventive you can get, when you’re faced with impossible odds. You can break through and look back at the moment of imminent failure as the place where you really turned it around.

In business, sometimes the best decision is to fail the business. To fold your hand and walk away. To come back and fight another fight another day. Because in the end it’s not about getting knocked down – it’s about what you do after you get knocked down.

So get up, fight and learn. You’ll be glad you did.