Why Hitting Rock Bottom Helps You Reach The Top
For a long time, we were conditioned not to talk about failure. The times when life hadn’t gone right were swept under the carpet. But as a society, we are starting to learn that the biggest, most transformative moments of our lives often come through crisis or failure. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who won a Bafta for writing and starring in the feminist sitcom Fleabag, has spoken about how she found a certain “glory in failure”. As have other luminaries including Booker Prize winners, scientists and artists.
In recent years, the notion of “failing well” has gained considerable currency. Books such as Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford and The Art of Failing by Anthony McGowan, which describes itself as “a chronicle of one man’s daily failures and disappointments”, claim that failure can be transformed into something positive when the right alchemy is applied.
Aw understands this more than most. He started Mighty Jaxx in 2012 with a US$20,000 loan. Today, the Singapore-based design studio is a multi-million-dollar company, working with artists as well as international brands such as DC Comics and New Balance to create collectable sculptures. Its weird and wonderful figurines are admired and collected around the world. But it wasn’t always plain sailing. When he was building the brand, Aw had to sleep in his small, unsanitary design studio for five years.
Based in a very industrial part of the city, he would be left alone when everyone else returned home from work, sleeping on a meeting sofa with a single blanket pulled over him. “It was a strange and difficult time,” he says. “At 2am, random people would open doors, looking for stuff to steal. I got used to sleeping with a baseball bat. People have always said it was so brave of me, but I didn’t have an option. A collector had very kindly lent us studio space and I had nowhere else to go.”
During that period, Aw visited factories and learnt about production processes and techniques, such as hand-sculpting and moulding from scratch. The techniques he learned are still with him today, and his company has produced over 100 original toy sculptures.
“That period made me so much tougher,” he explains. “I learned how to live with that kind of anxiety and taught myself tenacity. I also learned to accept that you rarely get everything you want. Those formative years were really important to me. I am 30 now, and I was 23 then, and I can see how much that time shaped me.”
As well as hitting financial rock bottom, Aw also had to struggle with the fact his family didn’t understand, or approve, of his career at first. “At the beginning, they didn’t get it. They would ask 'What are you doing man?' It is rather difficult for parents of that generation to comprehend what we want,” he explains. “My family are quite traditional, but in our country, people are always dubious about a career in art. But they’re slowly coming around to it.”
“Young people in Singapore are coming around to a new way of thinking,” he continues. Entrepreneurship is a romantic idea, but when it really comes to the reality of it, a lot of people are all trying to get out of the norm: they don’t want to be pigeonholed. They all want to create something they own. It’s a hard path to go down, but it’s a great feeling when you get there. One thing I learned is that you don’t have to be good at everything; hire talented to people to work with you, or in my case, design toys the way I want them to be.”
“It’s not about how good you are, but how good you want to be,” says Aw, paraphrasing one of his favourite quotes. He knew he had made it when mighty Jaxx exported a toy to its 60th country.
“I finally felt good about myself when there was a lot of recognition coming from different organisations, and coming from Gen.T too,” he says, proudly. “For the first time I was like, “Ah, something is actually working. I had been so laser focused, I suddenly stepped back and saw it from a good perspective, because honestly, as a founder, you rarely know how well you are doing because you’re so deep in the fray.”
I learned how to live with anxiety and taught myself tenacity. I also learned to accept that you rarely get everything you want. Those formative years were really important to me.
— Jackson Aw
But would those successes have tasted as sweet if those hard times hadn’t come before? Aw isn’t sure, but he does know a touch of failure is good for the soul. “I think it is so important for entrepreneurs to fail: I still fail every day, but now I like to fail quick. If it doesn’t work, fantastic, now you know what will. So long as you don’t take it personally, failure is always worthwhile."
At the heart of it is the idea that one becomes strong because of weakness; and that you are more likely to succeed if you have learned from what went wrong. Few people have proved that more poetically than Aw.
See more honourees from the Architecture & Design category of the Gen.T List 2019.