Lessons from failure (aka thank god FY09 is over)

I've been reflecting on failure. The last financial year has just finished and part of me thinks "thank god that's over". We've had our share of failures over the last year. We grew quickly, got up to 10 people, moved into a gorgeous office, realised that not all of the people were the right people for the business, lost some clients because of that, lost some money, cut back the team, learned some great lessons and went through a fair bit of pain.

Josh Waitzkin is an amazing guy with some great insights into losing and failure. He was a chess prodigy and 8 time US national chess champion - he was the subject of the movie 'Searching for Bobby Fischer'. He has subsequently become a world martial arts champion. He has also written a fabulous book, 'The Art of Learning'.

He's had some big successes ... and some big failures. He writes "successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins."

Josh talks about “investing in losses.” He tells a story about training against a very aggressive, experienced martial artist who threw him from pillar to post. For a year he took beatings from this guy, investing in losses, until finally on a particular day he started to get the upper hand. The other guy then claimed he had injured his foot, and stopped the training session. He never trained with Josh again. His ego wasn't strong enough to lose, and so he didn't get the improvement that was available. Josh's philosophy in chess and martial arts was always to compete against people better than he was, to learn as much as he could.

'Work as a Spiritual Practice' by Lewis Richmond is another one of my favourite books. The book has a whole chapter on failure. He tells a great story about a company searching for a new president. They received a report from the recruitment agency they used, and for one candidate under weaknesses they noted "Candidate has not failed." They didn't recommend giving the job to someone who hadn't experienced failure - if things started to get tough that candidate may panic and not know how to handle it.

Failure is also temporal. Today's failure may become a victory in hindsight. Like the story of the farmer who's son breaks his leg, and curses his bad luck at not having is son to work the fields with him. Then the next day when the army conscripts all the young men, and his son is passed over because of his broken leg, blesses his good fortune. The perspective of hindsight can radically change our perception.

I read about a study that concluded that in old age we regret much more the things we didn't attempt than the things we failed at. I think that's gold.

So from one perspective the last year has been a failure. But it’s also been a great success. As Josh Waitzkin would say I shot for the stars, put my heart on the line and played full out.

I've realised I don't want to build a big business with lots of staff and hundreds of coaches. I've clarified what's really important to me, and what a business I love looks like. I've had some big insights and made some big changes. That probably wouldn't have happened if it had all been smooth sailing. And in a few months I'm off to Bali to run the business from a villa in Ubud.

What failures and losses have you invested in recently?