Are All Failure’s Purposeful?


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An old boss / mentor of mine told me that everything is purposeful. I remember the first time I heard him say this; I was 24 years old, we were in month two of a start up, and I had worked on all the mappings in our database. Based on the way I had mapped something, we were $200,000 more “in the red” than projected and only saw this once the end of month P&L came out. He was so angry, I thought he would fire me…but he called me into his office and asked one questions, “what did you learn from this?” I told him what I had learned and he explained he was not angry because “everything is purposeful” and “it was purposeful that it happened at such an early stage of the business and not 6 months later when we were driving 20 times as much traffic to our website”.

I’ve never really forgotten that conversation and as the years have gone on, every time something negative in my life occurs, I think to myself, “this is purposeful”. While this has helped me through a lot of hard times, I also sometimes wonder if this is just an ‘excuse’ when I make a mistake.

I was watching the video below and it brought me back to the ‘benefits’ of failing. Certainly, we all fail; and certainly if we listen to anyone successful, we hear how they have grown so much more from their failures than their successes. This made me wonder if every time we ‘fail’ at something, it’s purposeful – there is a reason involved. I can go through my life, or at least the past 7 or 8 years and track back everything I “considered” a failure. Certainly, something positive has come out of each failure, but is this because it was “purposeful” or because I have a tenacious personality and ‘made something positive happen’? I’m interested in your thoughts on the video as well as examples of times a ‘failure’ in one thing has NOT led you to something positive in another. Please do share as I cannot come up with anything at this time and I’m still thinking, thinking, thinking. Everything I think about, I’m able to “spin” into a positive; but am I “spinning” or are things really purposeful?

This video, the Harvard 2008 commencement speech by JK Rowlings, is not only an entertaining speech; but certainly talks about how ‘failing’ leads you learn things about yourself you wouldn’t otherwise have learned. It’s a sense of empowerment. I’ve failed numerous times, but unsure if I’ve ever had a revelation as big as JK Rowlings.

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

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  1. August 7, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    I have to admit that finding failures to be either “purposeful”, or spinnable into something more positive are two of the hardest things for me to do. So hard in fact that I am not sure I have ever really accomplished either. It could be that I just don’t realize all that they have done for me. Or it could be that because the lion’s share o fmy life has consisted of failures as opposed to successes, I have not yet had the chance to put any distance between myself and failure, before another failure of some sort occurs. Sad, but true.

    Either way, most of what I learned from a failure is, “That didn’t work.” When I am extra honest with myself, I suppose I can say that sometimes a failure has taught me, “You aren’t really cut out for that after all…” and I decide not to do it anymore.

    You probably would have seen most of my many failures in the way you have seen yours…chances to improve. To learn. “Purposeful” events as your former employer mentioned. In other words, you probably would have spun them into positives, and I have not, or cannot. So to a large degree, (in answer to your meta-question) it probably does have a lot to do with you spinning your failures into something else.

    But why should the fact that it is spin be a negative? We tend to associate “spin” with “dishonesty” these days, but really it is just redirecting something in a different direction, when we are unable to change the facts. Spin is a matter of perception. If you are able to spin your failures into something you gain from, so be it. I am sure others , myself included, wish they possessed that trait to a greater extent.

  2. August 8, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I don’t believe you when you say above, “the most I ever learned from a failure is ‘that doesn’t work'”. I know you’re smart enough to take a step back and say…”why didn’t that work?” and if you can’t figure out an answer or review objectively; ask other people, no?

    When my boss spoke of ‘purposeful’, it didn’t necessarily always tie to learning; but more so that no matter what happened, “it happened for a reason” (kind of like destiny) – but sometimes we don’t find what that reason is until years later. I guess by saying, “that was purposeful”, many would view it is an excuse…but I think it’s more of an overall positive mindset.

    Example for me: I was technically ‘fired’ from my last job. I’d never been fired before and I know based on my performance, I wasn’t being fired based on performance. I was angry, disgusted, hurt, and many other feelings I’de never felt before…but at the same time, I said – “why did this happen and who NOW?” I realized this was what needed to happen for me to start my own business. This was the “kick in the butt” I needed; and it worked. I could have easily looked for or accepted another job offer, but I didn’t….because I knew being let go of this company was ‘a sign’ (of sorts).

  3. November 5, 2010 at 12:55 am

    Jamie, I’m really getting into your blog – thanks for all your insightful posts.
    This couldn’t have come at more timely moment for me. While there is quite a body of success/failure literature out there, I don’t believe that you can really relate until you’ve lived through it and grown from it yourself, as JK Rowling says (amaaazing speech!). Failure really does allow you to imagine possibilities that would never have entered your realm of thought if you had stayed on your perceived path of success.

    A promising permanent role that I thought I had finally secured after much job hunting fell through for me this week, as the employer has been unable to guarantee me anything more than sporadic consultancy work. It was a real blow as I’d really been looking forward to some security, financially, especially living in expensive New York City!

    Nevertheless, after allowing myself a few hours of fear and worry and exhaustion (and a healthy pep talk from my mother), you begin to see the possibilities – of growing my repertoire as a writer, blogger, digital and marketing consultant, of growing that kind of self-driven career that people only realize that they want after many years of slaving away at a prescribed rate of pay… it’s the kind of thinking that I don’t think would come from the comfort of an easily obtained 9-5 role!

    In short, I think it’s essential to put the spin on our failures and setbacks. Nothing is gained or learned from wallowing or regret!

  4. November 5, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Thanks Aria! I just went to your blog and smiled because “when I was your age…” hahahaha, my profile read almost the same as yours. It’s AMAZING how much can happen between ages 23 and almost 30. Once you get the right ‘gig’, or more importantly, work for the right people, those 7 years fly by; but what is so amazing is the amount you can learn and grow in those 7 years. True story: at 23 yrs old, I had just dropped out of law school (22) and had just gotten a ‘sales’ job. I had no experience in marketing, sales, operations, strategy, etc. 7 years later; I’ve had 2 successful start up companies in Director and VP level roles; and am currently serving as a Chief Operating Officer for another new business. My advice to you: FIND THE RIGHT TEAM – THE RIGHT MENTORS!!! I was in NY last week and met with a Principal of a VC fund and we both agreed, a “A” Team with a “B” or “C” idea or product is FAR more likely to get an investment than an “A” product with a “B” or “C” team.

    Okay – now to get off my soapbox ( ; and onto YOU – when the ‘permanent’ role fell through, did you offer to continue with some consulting work for now? My opinion has always been that if I can show someone how GOOD I AM (even if it’s only sporadic work), they WILL HIRE ME at some point. My advice based on my experience; take some of the consultant work…and kick ass on it. At the same time, go FAR above and beyond what they ask you to do. If they ask you to put together a marketing campaign, put together the campaign…but also, give them ideas for 4 other campaigns that THEY HAVE NOT thought of. Show them that you are not only capable of doing a “job”, but more importantly – show them how you think; show them how you strategize; and show them that you are TENACIOUS.

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