Photo from Jason Nelson
Just because you’ve failed, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
Failure is a cold, depressing, unforgiving place. J.K. Rowling’s Dementors personify the condition brilliantly:
Most of us, at some time, have been there. And our fear of failure is so great, that we tend to edit out of our lives any sign of weakness, any indication that we might be heading in that direction. We avoid situations where we might be seen to fail. Or adults do at least.
Babies don’t. For them, failing is absolutely normal. How many times do they struggle to get to their feet, and then take those first few steps, only to fall? That’s not failure. It’s a learning experience. And it just makes them more determined to succeed next time. And when they do succeed, that look of sheer delight as they turn to you, says it all. Triumph!
The same with language. Babies copy sounds, learn to make words, then small sentences, and realize their power. ‘Me want cup.’ It’s wrong of course … but who cares! It’s a step on the road to communication, and we celebrate with them.
It’s why young children are usually great at learning foreign languages, and most adults aren’t. When you’re young, failing is just part of learning, so you’re free to experiment, and you don’t feel bad when you get it wrong. But as adults, we hate to expose ourselves and let others see we might have made a mistake. We learn to be unadventurous.
And yet most of us yearn for adventure. The high points in our lives, the moments we relish, are when we took on a challenge – physical, mental, spiritual – and proved to ourselves that we could still triumph. Starting a business is, for me, one of those adventures. I know it’s likely that I’m going to fail at times – it wouldn’t be an adventure if it was safe. But I’m an adult. How do I guard against the danger of total failure? How do I make sure that even if I miss my footing, I don’t go crashing down onto the rocks below?
My strategy is to start by planning my destination – exactly where I want to be a month or a year from now. Let me illustrate by showing you the destination for my new business, Coloring The Wind (which is selling ‘finely-crafted inspiration’, poetry presented as wall-art). The first target has to be that I can afford to support myself – or there’ll be no business. This ‘destination statement’ would be too vague:
There’s no time-scale. And ‘viable’ is entirely subjective – it could mean something entirely different to me than to you. (I may even have two different points of view myself .. depending on the spin I want to give ‘viable’ at the time!) This is better, but still not good enough:
But what’s a ‘decent living wage’? Again it’s subjective. And my destination doesn’t define how I’m going to make that payment. Perhaps I could do it by borrowing from the bank – but that’s not the intention. So here’s an example of a destination statement that works.
Fine. So that’s the destination. Now how am I going to get there in the 30-day period? I list my key responsibilities (usually around 10-15 of them) for the period, and for each one I set measurable targets – targets that’ll help me to reach my destination. Here are mine:
- Find talented creatives ready to contribute
- Reach agreement with at least 5 poets
- Reach agreement with at least 3 visualizers
- Publish new products in store
- Release at least 10 new products
- Diversify product lines in store
- Set up store with at least 1 stream for poetry which is not entrepreneur-oriented
- For each product, introduce at least one variant to poster format (e.g. stationery, cards)
- Learn how to use Zazzle effectively
- Spend 8 hours researching Zazzle best-practice: then revise this objective
- Win support of CTW advocates
- Contact 50 potential advocates, asking them to share CTW’s info
- At least 25 advocates have shared CTW info at least 4 times in month
- Contact each advocate at least once a week
- Build CTW mailing-list
- At least 150 subscribers
- At least 75 per week open newsletter, and click on a link at least once
- Set up marketing affiliates
- Blog and mail subscribers once to explain benefits of affiliation with CTW
- At least 5 affiliate CTW shops opened on Facebook or blogs
- Manage CTW social media campaign
- Spend no more than 3 hours a day on CTW blogging / social media
- Publish at least 1 blog-post per day
- Merge CTW Facebook/Google+ pages into a single page driven by users
- Prepare to hire CTW team
- Preliminary achievement plans for CTW positions published by Aug 17
- Manage essential administration
- Complete declaration to US tax authorities so that Zazzle can pay us.
This is the basis for an Achievement Plan for my job. The next step is to add a list of the priority Personal Qualities I’ll need to get the job done. I draw these from my summary of Personal Qualities and later, I’ll check my performance against the descriptors in the Personal Qualities Framework. I’m listing:
So what do I do next? I stick this list of responsibilities and qualities right under my nose, so that every couple of hours, I can pause for a minute, think about what I’m doing, and make sure that it’s helping me to meet at least one of my targets. It stops me from getting distracted.
Then, at the beginning of each day, I run through my list of targets and work out my priorities. I’ll also be looking for any early warnings that I might fail to hit a target. What am I going to do about it? Should I change the target? If so will that stop me from reaching my destination? Or should I just find a better way to do it? Do I need to ask someone for advice? Is there something I need to learn?
When you set measurable targets, there’s always the risk that you won’t hit them – and I probably will fail – or at least need to readjust – in some areas. But the point of this achievement-centred approach is to spot problems early, and to address them before they become catastrophes. That’s how to fail successfully – and how not to be a failure.
So now it’s your turn. What’s your Achievement Plan?