Why Entrepreneurs Can Learn More From Failure Than Their Wins
In Asia, we're taught from a young age that failure is the opposite of success. When we do poorly at school, we're told by our teachers we are a bad or less hardworking student; when our business runs into trouble, we risk being criticised for humiliating our family.
“Asians have a strong ‘saving-face’ mentality where they’re generally unforgiving of failures, as it is perceived that failures mean weakness,” said Jacqueline Low, the former COO of Singapore-based corporate services firm Hawksford, in an interview with CNBC. This, she added, places unnecessary pressure on individuals to meet the expectations of others and a negative reaction when they fail to do so.
But the truth is, a society that isn’t willing to take risks for fear of failing isn’t ideal for business or innovation. As the late CEO and chairman of IBM Thomas Watson Sr once said, “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”
While the concept of celebrating failure isn’t new, it wasn’t long ago when it really took off. For this, experts are thanking social media for making it easier to share our professional challenges and defeats. After all, we know that being able to talk about these issues and learn from others is the key to improving our productivity and boosting our professional growth. Here, we ask Gen.T honourees to weigh in on why failure is the best teacher in business and life.
Failure is a necessary evil
Setbacks are part of life and when we accept this fact, “nothing can stop you from achieving your true purpose”, says Iqbal Ameer, CEO of Malaysia-based lifestyle and experiential marketing specialist Livescape Group, which is behind Asia’s biggest festival at sea, It’s the Ship.
In 2014, Ameer and his team had to overcome a major setback when it had to cancel its three-day Future Music Festival Asia in Kuala Lumpur after several festival-goers died of a drug overdose. They also had to cancel the Singapore edition of the music festival the following year, after failing to get their public entertainment licence application approved by local authorities.
Rather than feel beaten down, Ameer considers these failures an essential part of the entrepreneurial journey. “As entrepreneurs, we shouldn’t forget that this infinite loop is the life we chose when we decided to become our own boss,” he says. “What we should do is fail fast in order to succeed in the long term.” And when you fail again? He says, “It may be worse than before or not as bad. However, the feeling you get is definitely less [impactful]—and that is what we call experience.”
What we should do is to fail fast in order to succeed in the long term
There is a limit to what success can teach you
It is a natural human reaction to like and desire success because of the rewards it gives you. This could range from monetary gains to a big boost in confidence when your efforts are recognised. “We like it because it makes us feel good about ourselves—we feel safe, loved and that we belong,” says Choo Yilin, who founded her eponymous fine jewellery brand in 2009. “But one of my teachers in school used to say, ‘Success stops being a teacher once you’re 35’.”
Since a young age, Choo has struggled to embrace her own failures. “I have a terrible relationship with losing,” she admits, recalling how she would cry and throw tantrums as a child whenever she lost to her brother and cousins at games. “As I grew older, I stopped doing all that but continued to be a terrible loser.” Giving in to her perfectionist tendencies, she learned to “engineer situations where I couldn’t fail or could minimise my chances of failing”.
She also learned ways to reframe failure in a positive light, which would have been ideal except that she found “it prevented me from sitting with the painful emotions, and unpacking and processing the lessons I needed to learn”.
But life got more complex when Choo became an entrepreneur, forcing her to think more maturely. “Ironically, for those of us who desire to create a massive impact in this world, we aren’t able to do so without making failure an old friend,” she says. “Failure may be a blow to our ego, but it hides wisdom underneath its surface. And it is this wisdom that's needed to tackle the complex issues of our time.”
See also: Parenting And Startup Life Are Basically The Same Thing. Here's Why
Failure presents opportunities
For entrepreneur Roshni Mahtani, leaders should always be prepared for failure—big or small. “For many leaders, it is a huge personal blow when failure strikes, but what they can't neglect is that the damage spiderwebs to the team,” says Mahtani, who is founder and CEO of Tickled Media, a media startup behind brands such as The Asian Parent. “That's why I've made it my job to make failure present in our business plans. I’ll be the person who acknowledges the elephant in the room and asks, ‘What do we do if we fail?’”
She says this honest approach to embracing failure has helped her carry her business through tough times. “When you plan for the worst outcomes, your parameters become very clear and it’s much easier to move within them or reach beyond. Answering the ‘what ifs’ is one of the healthiest things you can do for a project or business.”
Even if your back-up plan doesn’t work, there will be opportunities to learn and grow, she adds. “Just make sure that it's you who’s doing the learning and not someone else, such as a competitor, at your expense.”
For those of us who desire to create a massive impact in this world, we aren’t able to do so without making failure an old friend
— Choo Yilin
Your past failures reveal your risk appetite
From an investor’s perspective, Vinnie Lauria, managing partner of early-stage venture capital fund Golden Gate Ventures, which has investments in seven countries across Asia, says: “I see failure as a positive word. It means you tried, you took a risk and, hopefully, you learned.”
He adds that one way he assesses an investment opportunity is by looking at a founder’s openness to taking risks and making mistakes. “I look for high-risk investments because it can bring about high rewards,” he says. “If your past tells me that you’re risk-averse, I will have concerns about how big the business opportunity could be in the future.”
As a founder himself, he sees wisdom in the words of former Canadian professional ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
See more honourees from the Gen.T List 2019.