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How To Reframe Failure

For as long as I can remember I have dreamed of starting my own business – but if a fear of failure held me back. Even though the entrepreneurial path is almost like a right of passage now, back in 2005 this is not something that ever occurred to me as an option.  The golden ticket was to source some kind of graduate programme that paid minimum wage and then hustle your way up the corporate ladder so you could put a deposit on a house. Ahhh, the Australian Dream.

In my various corporate jobs, I often found myself in some sort of ‘intrapreneur role’, where I was building something new for the business. In 2010, after 5ish years of building other people’s dreams, I decided that I was ready to take the plunge and learn how to do this for myself, and applied to do an MBA.

Regardless of the flack MBAs get, for me personally, the final year blew my mind wide open to the world of innovation and entrepreneurship. I made a decision pretty early on that by the time I graduated I would have a co-founder and launch my own business.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find a co-founder (not for lack of trying) but I did have a tonne of ideas that I wanted to incubate & launch, here are a few (keep in mind this was 2010, there was no such thing as WeWork and Instagram hadn’t even launched yet):

  • Walk’ n’ Wardrobe. This was inspired by the classic 90s movie, Clueless. The idea was to create a digitised wardrobe that intelligently matched your clothes for you. If you did want to buy a new item, the app would link to your eBay account to sell the similar item you already had in your wardrobe (eBay was still popping at this time).
  • Digital First Parking lots. Do not ask me why, but ever since I was 20 I wanted to buy up land and build parking lots. My ‘super original idea’ here was that it was all digital, removing the need for parking attendants (you can’t always pick the winners).
  • Pop up shops. The idea here was to reinvigorate the local high street and communities by connecting pure-play online brands with their customers via pop-up shops, helping the community & the online brands go from clicks to bricks (awesome, right? well…not really).

By the time I finished in 2012, I landed on the pop-up shop idea and called my business ‘Popping Up’. I was equally excited and scared at the same time and launched into being a solo founder. Long story short, after months of getting all the important things right, like my logo, business cards, Twitter account, etc. I realised that the demand for this type of service was there but the surrounding infrastructure such as semi-permanent leasing and nontraditional payment platforms was not yet mainstream in Australia. At the time Square was being blocked from entering Australia by the four big banks (it finally got approved in 2016). After many failed attempts and pivots, I couldn’t get the numbers to add up and decided to shut up shop. 

For the first time in my life I had really taken a leap into something I believed in and it ‘failed’. I failed, I was a failure. This led me to questions like: ‘Um excuse me, I am an MBA graduate, this never happens to MBA graduates, right?’, ‘I pivoted and hustled and used all the words Silicon Valley told me to use, how come it didn’t work?’ and lastly the kicker, ‘They said (not even sure who ‘they’ are) I would be successful!’

Wow, where did that come from? Wasn’t I looking to build a business to improve connections in the community? Or was I after ‘start up’ glory? After much soul searching and heartache, I realised that I started out really wanting to solve the community problem, but as I got deeper into the ‘cool startup world’ I kinda wanted to be start-up famous.

After I admitted this to myself; shame and embarrassment came and set up camp in my head and heart. And stayed there for years.

How the word ‘failure’ was not meant for humans

You might be judging my lack of maturity – you would be right, this wasn’t my finest hour. I was also not emotionally equipped for the lonely journey of starting my own business and although I said words like ‘fail fast’ and ‘pivot’.  I never wanted any of it to fail, quite the opposite, I wanted everything to be perfect.  If I reflect on my corporate roles, the companies I worked for also adopted the Silicon Valley jargon of ‘fail fast’, but when you scratched the surface, none of the executives wanted to put money behind something that they thought might fail. I remember one executive said to me “Fail Fast Julie but don’t really fail.” Doesn’t that say it all? 

I decided to look into the word ‘failure’ and its origin. While reading The Rise by Dr. Sarah Lewis, I discovered that the word ‘failure’ was never meant to be associated with the human condition. In fact, it was introduced in the early 1900s in America to describe bankruptcy. Then over time it got applied to human life, but as humans, this word never felt right; if you ‘fail’ in essence it means you cease to exist, you expire. And even after death, a person lives on in the memory of others. No wonder why we feel so incredibly uncomfortable about the word! 

This got me thinking about another situation I found myself in after I had just given birth to my son. Like most new mothers I found it incredibly difficult to breastfeed. I was exhausted, emotional, and feeling like I did not match the picture-perfect motherhood image I had seen on Instagram. I went to my routine midwife appointment where she was to weigh my son and ‘help’ me with any questions I had. After weighing him she stated that he was losing weight and not ‘thriving’. I am not proud to admit it but I went all Red Ross on her (well, I was a little proud). I explained to her that when an animal was ‘not thriving’ in the wild that it meant that it would die – was she insinuating that because I was having trouble breastfeeding that my son was about to die?! We decided to go our separate ways after that incident. 

Here is yet another phrase that I would argue should not be associated with the human experience. It makes you feel like a failure and comes with other friends like shame and embarrassment. All of which are the antithesis of vulnerability and resilience which are qualities you need both when starting a new business and embarking on motherhood. 

Dump the ‘F’ word and do Friday Night Experiments instead 

As I matured and sat with the experience of Popping up, I began to refer to it differently in my mind. I realised that the word ‘failure’ didn’t fit the experience of it all. It was an imperfect description of what had happened. 

Once I started to talk more openly about my journey, I framed it as a pivotal learning experience that led me on a path of deep reflection & understanding. It also served me up some important life lessons:

  • Keep that Ego in check. I was focussing on the arrival of ‘success’ and all the external stuff that went with it.
  • Nurture & protect infant ideas. Popping Up was still at the embryonic stage of development and instead of protecting it with a small number of trusted advisors, I was too focussed on updating my LinkedIn profile and getting my business cards (they were still a thing in 2012).
  • Emotional Maturity & Emotional Intelligence aren’t the same things. I was not mentally prepared for the startup journey, or rather, I was ready for the highs but did not want to experience the lows.

I knew in my heart that I wanted to start my own business again; however, I also knew that I wanted to create a safe space where I could take the time to nurture my ideas, without feeling exposed or the pressure to succeed. 

This is when I came across the idea of Friday Night Experiments (FNEs). Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov are two acclaimed physicists who popularised the term when they decided to dedicate 10% of their lab time to work on experimental science that wasn’t necessarily linked to their day job.  The physicists purposely wanted to create a safe environment to work on crazy ideas that might change the world. And change the world they did. In 2010 they won the Nobel Prize in Physics as a result of one of these ‘crazy’ FNEs.

I started to create my own little lab where I would spend each week working on this concept I was calling ‘Twofeetin’. I would build out what it could be and how I saw it in the future. As it was a nascent idea, I was careful not to share it too widely with others. I didn’t want other people’s opinions to tarnish my early thoughts on what this could or couldn’t be. Over time, I started to let in some trusted advisors, to share my thinking and iterate ideas. This is how I landed on writing this newsletter. I had so many places I could start but I knew I wanted to build a community, so I decided to test whether people would be interested in signing up for a newsletter to hear what I had to say. And guess what?! To my surprise, people signed up! Thank you. 

Your weekly rewiring challenge

What I found interesting when reading about FNEs is that they never used the word ‘fail’ – they were experiments set up in a safe environment to test, learn and iterate. This reminded me of common tools used in Product Management, such as product discovery and design sprints. So, for this week’s rewiring challenge, I have combined FNEs safe environment approach with the design sprint methodology. 

If you are thinking about nurturing an idea  before sharing it with the world, try using this approach (let me know how it works for you!):

Step 1: Create a safe environment to experiment 

  • Dedicate time each week to nurture your idea e.g.: 10% or 20% of your working week
  • Do not limit your ideas! The more crazy and outlandish, the better!
  • Once you have taken the right amount of time to nurture your idea (this will differ for each person), start to think about who you might want to share it with, the following has worked for me:
    • Limit the number of people you share your idea with e.g.: 2 to 4 ppl max
    • Think about the type of people you want to share your idea with, this includes those who will help you think differently, not shut you down e.g.: family members might give you skewed advice in order to protect you, not your idea
    • Start thinking about the smallest experiment you can undertake to test your ideas with others, share this with your Trusted Advisors

Step 2: Start experimenting & testing your ideas 

I go into this in a lot more detail in the attached template, but essentially the idea is to follow the below steps:

  1. Understand. Define your idea, & undertake research
  2. Ideate. Analyse research & generate ideas for possible solutions.
  3. Decide. Choose ideas to take forward to prototype.
  4. Prototype. Decide how you want to prototype your idea, e.g.: create a landing page where people can sign up. 
  5. Validate. Evaluate your idea with a cross-section of your target users.
  6. Learn, iterate. Make your micro-changes based on your learnings. Keep moving forward.

One word of advice: the inter-web will tell you to do this design sprint in 5 days (each step takes a day) &  there is a whole list of things you need to do under each section, this is all true but you run your own race and take the time to work through each one.

Final thoughts

When I think about my experience which happened almost 10 years ago, it is so clear to me that I was chasing success and focussing on the arrival of what that word meant for me, namely external validation. But as I was free-falling into my shame and embarrassment, I did notice that something else existed for me. A possibility to start anew and redefine how I wanted my journey to go. Like a brand new blank page.  

I couldn’t quite grasp what it was until I listened to Dr. Sarah Lewis on the Dare to Lead podcast with Brene Brown. She talked about the difference between Success and Mastery. Where one is all about that endpoint and the latter, Mastery, requires endurance and is more than a commitment to a goal but rather a commitment to a curved line. A constant pursuit that pushes us to continue to reach for something which is just outside our grasp. 

That’s what I want — to follow a curved line. 

Other tools, tips & resources to help with fear of failure

Friday Night Experiments template 

The Rise by Dr. Sarah Lewis 

Dare to Lead with Dr. Brene Brown and Dr. Sarah Lewis 

Listening to Shame – Dr. Brene Brown 

Friday Night Experiments 

What is a design sprint