How I Failed My Technique to Success—By Undoing What I’d Been Taught
I pledged to give this talk for the first time for a great organization called KOA, which aptly means “fearless” in Hawaii. As I started to prepare, I realized that it was difficult to review my mistakes. The decision which I would like to share with the world made me rethink this lecture at all. But that reminded me, albeit painfully, of the importance of sharing our mistakes.
When looking at my LinkedIn profile or website, the picture is incomplete. There have been a lot of successes, but a lot of what I’ve brought there isn’t the case. All of my accomplishments came from fighting – much of it. I fell and failed at every stage of my journey and my path was far from smooth. I found that my greatest learning moments came from these “mistakes” – the bigger the disappointment, the more effective the learning. I still find them difficult to take into account and share, but here it goes:
- Dropped out of college after completing medical school
- Attempted modeling in several cities and countries with limited success
- Fought cancer in my thirties and then fired six months later
- Tried unsuccessfully for five years to create sustainability for an NGO
- My last company job was cut when I was struggling with multiple family and health crises
But to understand how failure affects success, I had to re-examine what success means. Success as we all define it is complex. It means different things to different people at different times in their life. It can mean luck, achievement, importance, or legacy. Success is often a confused combination of all of them that we may not have fully explored for ourselves.
As I thought about it a little more closely, I realized that success was easier for me in the early days than it is today. I grew up in a household where money was always a concern. My father lost his job when I was young and then struggled for a full-time job for years. The stress was an everyday burden, so for me, success meant financial freedom. I wanted to eliminate daily financial worries as an important measure of my success. I also wanted to have a job that people would respect so that I could proudly share what I’ve done.
I achieved both of these for most of my career as a lawyer, then as a business tech executive, and now as an entrepreneur. But then, as is so often the case when you achieve what you think you want, I realized that I wanted more. Now my definition of success is tied to my impact, my learning and my autonomy. These concepts have always been important to me, but it wasn’t until later in my career that I had seen how to include them as a priority. And I had to first address the simpler definition of success that I had before these pieces could reveal themselves.
An important insight for me was that failure is not the opposite of success, but an important input. It is worth pausing for a minute because it is not what we are being taught. We are taught that you are either a success or a failure. We are taught not to fail. But if failure contributes to success, it changes everything about how we should deal with it.
Failure actually serves a number of purposes, often including as a catalyst. When I failed my medical degree, dropping out of college became a catalyst to reassess my values, skills, and approach to myself. This led me on a very different path. Trying to model, with limited success, has helped me pull the curtain back on what society says, beauty, and the glamorous life that is to follow. Modeling in Europe showed me other lifestyles to choose from, and not just what I had experienced in the US. I also learned how important it is to present confidently and to create beautiful pictures for people. Since I did not achieve my goal of creating a sustainable source of fundraising for an NGO, with this knowledge I founded my own NGO, which enables me to achieve successes that are beyond my imagination.
My mistakes and those of everyone else create perseverance. Every time I failed, I had a choice: stay down or get up and try again. When I dropped out of college, it took me years to get back on track and even more to turn that failure into a successful law school. I spent five years doing fundraising with different approaches before calling my efforts to create a sustainable source of funding a failure (although I had raised a lot of funds), and another five years planning and building a new NGO with Sustainability in your model. I’ve been told that any overnight success takes 10 years and my experience backs it up.
After all, failures teach when you are open to the lesson. They’re not always who you were looking for, but often something equivalent, if not more valuable. My examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Both my father and son failed their first chosen degree in college and found courses that suited them much better. My mother tried twice, unsuccessfully, to resume her elementary school teaching career after motherhood, and then became an award-winning language teacher. When his college coaching career wasn’t advancing, my husband became a high school coach, won a state championship, and was named District Teacher of the Year.
The first step here is to redefine failure as something that is critical to learning and growth. This is counterculture, so it takes discipline and unlearning. The shame associated with failure is so great that it is not easy to accept it and speak openly about it. A simple reframe can really benefit all of us.
Ellenore is a happily married mother of three children. As a member of the Working Mom Club for 18 years, she has written many stories. They range from profound to ridiculous. Entry into middle life led to a desire to make a bigger difference and raise children. Find out more about Ellenore here.