Treat Failure With Respect

March 14, 2019 by Joshua
in Entrepreneurship, Stories

“Fail early and often”

“Fail forward”

“Fail, fail, fail”

The business world, especially around entrepreneurship, promotes failing as a way to learn. I recognize its inevitability and necessity for learning, but I suspect many people who promote it have never experienced devastating failure.

I’ve failed huge in life and I wouldn’t speak about it as cavalierly as many do. I consider physical injury inevitable in fitness and learning and I never hear people say “get injured early and often” or the like.

Some of my failures

Researchers ask people how long they think they can keep their hands in freezing cold water. Nearly everyone overestimates the time. They estimate minutes and then pull their hands out after a few seconds. Knowing your hand will feel cold doesn’t approach how it feels. It hurts more than they imagine.

The emotions of failure hurt more than we can imagine. I didn’t know whom I could trust. I questioned my sense of humanity. Everyone seemed after themselves. The hopes and dreams they told me about before seemed to mean nothing.

Submedia’s near-bankruptcy

When Submedia, the company I cofounded, almost went bankrupt, I couldn’t have imagined the depths and variety of emotions overwhelming me. To name them—confusion, despair, futility, fear, misery and so on—doesn’t do justice to how it felt to feel them.

I felt worthless. My great dream felt like it came to nothing. Worse than nothing for all I gave up for it. Everyone knew. I felt so resourceful when things went well. Then with no way to help myself, that resourcefulness, and all my other strengths, felt like so many ways I had fooled myself.

Graduate school

My first year of graduate school, when I was away from where I considered home, I struggled to keep up and barely did, the department head recommended I drop back a year, my roommates didn’t pay the bills, my girlfriend left me, . . . I can’t remember everything, but I do remember consciously confirming that it was the worst year and a half of my life.

I didn’t see a way out. I felt like I was in a swamp or quicksand. Hopeless. Worthless.

After being ousted

My year or two after getting ousted from Submedia, the company I founded, were brutal too.

I had given up academia and physics and saw no way to return. I failed at business. What other experience did I have? What could I offer the world to make myself worth anything?

I still had to pay my mortgage and eat food, which I guess I now see as a blessing in disguise for getting me outside, but I felt like everything I had worked so hard and so long to achieve were of no value to others.

And all that followed the year or so when the company fell apart around me.


Now, of course, I’ve learned from the experiences. I value what they taught me. I consider myself better for them than I could have become otherwise. If I could go back, I’d advise myself to do more things that still might risk such outcomes. As I write these words I realize I should take more risks today.

But I wouldn’t speak so cavalierly about it. I wouldn’t glamorize failure. I’d treat it with respect.

Rereading my vignettes about my experiences around Submedia’s troubles and graduate school don’t do justice to them. I’d meant to write this post for a long time to revisit those periods, but I think they’ve faded too much to capture their poignancy.

I haven’t even considered heartbreak.

It’s just that with my book on initiative past its last round of editing, nearing going to printing, I keep thinking about how to treat this issue more respectfully.

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