Before I wrote my first book, I went to half a dozen writers conferences trying to learn how to "land the book deal." Most of the advice was pretty generic, save for one person's. The author was no J.K. Rowling, but she had moderate success and was seen by us in the audience as the person to aspire to.
As I listened intently, she described how the most boring part of her story was actually getting the book deal--far more interesting were all the rejections she confronted along the way. Hearing her describe her painful rejections inspired me to go ahead with my own ambitions--if she could continually persevere in the face of numerous obstacles, what was to stop me?
No doubt, we learn far more about ourselves and our potential when we face failures. In fact, some CEOs have told me that they won't even look at senior candidates who haven't failed at least once in their careers. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, which has become a bible of sorts for the startup entrepreneur, describes the acumen he honed after failing several times.
So what exactly do we learn from failing? I asked several highly successful people that question for my podcast, Radiate, and here are the seven best. (Click on their names to hear them talk about it in their own words):
1. Sallie Krawcheck learned how to redefine success. When she got fired from her second big Wall Street job, Krawcheck reassessed her career path and became an entrepreneur. She's far more fulfilled today than she ever was in banking--even though the pay admittedly was nicer before. "Do you define yourself by the amount of money you make?" she said. "Do you define yourself by whether you have a corporate jet? I define myself by impact.... What impact do I want to have ... earlier in my career when you're an investment banking analyst it's hard to have an impact."
2. George Zimmer learned his business model didn't work. Ten years into his company, the former Men's Wearhouse CEO was near bankruptcy--he traversed the country looking for half a million dollars in funds. Luckily, at the very end, his mother bailed out the business, but Zimmer says he learned a very valuable lesson: His business model wasn't working. "It was from that problem that we actually redesigned the economic model in the mid-1980s and adopted everyday low pricing," Zimmer said. Decades later, he was generating billions in sales.
3. Steve Schwarzman learned to speak his mind. Few people are as successful as private equity billionaire Schwarzman, but at one point, he was a high school senior like the rest of us applying for college admission. That's about where the similarities end. When Schwarzman was rejected by Harvard, he did what almost none of us would do--called the dean to tell him he made a mistake. "I thought that they had made an error, or if they hadn't made an error, at least they weren't satisfying my objective," he said. Schwarzman went on to Yale, and Harvard later felt that dull pang of regret.
4. Jay Margolis learned the importance of staying true to yourself. The retail veteran behind brands like Reebok, Esprit, Tommy Hilfiger, and others learned how important it is for the corporate culture to fit you. From day one, he recalls how he didn't feel at home at Hilfiger. "Our values were different in terms of how we saw running a business and caring about what gets done and just how you work, and there were people in the company that I just wouldn't have hired," he said. Sure enough, it wasn't long before he was let go. "You have to live your values. The company has to live your values. You have to have people who live the values."
5. Andrea Jung learned it's not about the title but doing something you love. When Jung was initially passed over for the CEO job at Avon, she didn't leave. Instead, she worked her butt off for her rival. "I never woke up saying, I have to be the CEO. That wasn't my end goal," Jung said. "I guess really my end goal was to do work that I loved, to be able to contribute at a level and do work that I'm passionate about. And so I made the decision to stay." It turned out staying was the right decision--the CEO abruptly left and Jung ended up with the top job anyway.
6. Trevor Burgess learned the importance of thick skin. When Burgess came out in college to his fraternity brothers, one called him a "renounced sodomite." The backlash was painful and lonely. The bank CEO says, looking back, that the ugly episode helped him learn how to deal with rejection and criticism early on. "Going through that sort of experience, it taught me a couple of things," he said. "One, that I needed to have really thick skin if I was going to survive, in the business world especially. And number two is that I did have to be authentic. I needed to be myself completely if I was going to be successful."
7. Alan Patricof learned that the world is a bigger place than New York City. Patricof is a legend in the venture capital world, but even he makes mistakes. One particularly painful one is his decision to turn down investing in Starbucks. "I said, 'Are you crazy? I mean, we've got coffee shops in New York. We've got two in every single block. They just call them luncheonettes or coffee shops. Why in the world do we need another coffee shop?'" Patricof said. "I didn't understand the culture and what Starbucks was really about. It wasn't a coffee shop. It was really a way of life ... we suffer from thinking that since we have it in New York or it won't work in New York that it won't work some other place. That's a discipline we keep trying to improve."
If you like this article, you'll love my new podcast, Radiate, featuring interviews with CEOs, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders. You can click on new episodes on iTunes, SoundCloud, or on my website, www.betty-liu.com. Here is the RSS feed, too. And please don't forget to review the podcast or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.