There’s a mountain on the Swiss-Italian border that I’ve tried to climb a number of times. It’s North Ridge is one of the classic rock routes in the European Alps. I have mountaineering friends that have climbed it, and their success has inspired me to repeat their achievement. But it’s not easy – like all big challenges it requires knowledge, fitness, technical ability and a substantial degree of courage and determination. But that’s not all – there’s another ingredient that doesn’t always come your way – Luck! Success on any mountain requires a range of different skills, but it also requires that your skills and expertise combine with conditions on the mountain on the day to make success a real possibility. For me, like some other mountaineering friends, success on that particular mountain has always been elusive. In a way, to use a forbidden word – I have FAILED!
But I don’t necessarily see it as a failure. As an amateur mountaineer, living a few day’s travel from the Alps, climbing that mountain has always been a very challenging goal. But along the way, my ambition has enabled me to climb other ‘smaller’ mountains. Every time I travelled with friends to the mountains to climb, we’d set ourselves an ‘easier’, ‘warm-up’ goal. We usually, though not always, achieved that ‘easier’ goal. Having a big goal in life can seem daunting and challenging, but – here’s the thing – the incidental things we do along the way can seem vastly easier by comparison. I’ve come to believe that challenge is a normal part of life, and potential failure is an integral aspect of that challenge. And I believe we should see challenges, probable failures and possible successes as an essential ingredient in the experience of a young entrepreneur learning to run a growing, thriving business.
Acknowledging success in mountaineering, life and business is easy. It’s clearcut and obvious – you’ve got to the top of the mountain – there’s no doubt about that. But accepting failure is not so easy, very often because it leaves us with those deep questions about our decisions and past performance. What if we had tried harder that day? What if we had chosen a different route? Were we being over-cautious, or were we prudent in our decisions? What if we had tried to take just another few steps towards our goal, then paused and made a decision – would our perspective have been different? A very substantial part of our fear of failure is how we think others will think of us – we feel others may lose respect for us, and that they may consider us fools for even trying. Think about this – If you failed, but no one else was there to be aware of your failure or to criticise your actions, would it really matter? Remember that intriguing question from Nietzsche? – “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If no one is around to hear about your failure, does it really matter? But then – Did the challenge matter in the first place?
The last time I tried to climb the North Ridge was a few years ago. I had been further North in the Swiss Alps for a week with a mountaineering friend, and we had successfully climbed a smaller peak. Everything seemed to be fitting into place – my friend even said to me at the end of a long day “After that, I don’t fear the North Ridge – it can’t be much harder than today!”. So we drove those 3 south hours to the Swiss-Italian border, and made plans to climb the next day. Everything seemed possible and positive the evening before, but overnight things changed. My climbing friend suffered from the altitude, and had no real interest in doing anything other than resting. That evening it rained – and rain and alpine rock climbing don’t mix. And last, but not least, too many other climbers turned up to climb the next day. So early that morning we made the difficult decision not to climb. We’d spent a lot of money and invested a lot of time to get that climbing opportunity, and we agonized over the pros and cons of climbing – or not climbing. But in my own mind I made a second decision that morning – the decision to view our choice as positive and to have no lasting recriminations. It’s the same in business – Success may not be certain, failure may often be close, but we can make an internal decision to view our choice in a positive light, and project leadership confidence to our team and our business partners.
If we take on challenges, there is always the potential for failure. And the bigger the challenges we take on – the bigger the potential failure if the cards don’t fall our way. There’s the old seafaring maxim – “To sail close to the wind”. If you want to succeed, you need to be prepared to sail close to the wind, but sailing close to the wind increases the possibility of losing the breeze and failing completely. So very often, taking on good opportunities in business means that failure can be close. We need to plan and prepare for the challenge, but sometimes, no matter how good our planning and preparation, the cards don’t fall our way and circumstances work against us. But we can decide the perspective in which we view the outcome – is it a (negative) failure, or is it a (positive) experience from which we can learn valuable lessons.
We live in a structured society where it’s accepted that our performance is measured on a regular basis. We are measured in school and college by regular examinations and the attainment of qualifications. We are measured in our career by our salary, our progress and our job-title. Society expects us to have a spouse, 2.4 children, and a second home in the country. We are expected to have at least one holiday in the sun every year. Society sets out its own measures of success, and we are instilled from an early age with the belief that we need to meet those obligations that society demands. Society expects us to get that degree, get that job, get that house, be part of society, and then retire happily at 65. If you play the game society expects, society will give you the illusion you have succeeded.
But if you want to be an entrepreneur, you’ve gotta play by different rules. Success or failure rests on your shoulders, and yours alone. To ‘succeed’, you need to learn a new set of rules and learn to play by them. Those new rules are not clearly laid out, are not written down and are not so easy to learn. In a way, the hardest part of being an entrepreneur is learning that new set of rules, and learning to NOT judge yourself by the old set of rules. Success is about taking on those big goals you’ve always dreamed about, in spite of knowing that unforeseen and difficult challenges lurk on the path ahead. And sometimes those challenges, when you meet them, have no easy solution and no obvious answer. Your best planning and preparation may come to nothing, and whatever decision you make may seem to lead the rocky road to failure. But true success is taking on those challenges in the first place, and when you need to make a difficult decision, having no regrets and no self-recriminations about your choice, and having the personal courage to show confidence in your own judgement. That can be difficult, but it ultimately that comes back to the values that you judge yourself by, and the set of values you judge others by, not the values society expects us to judge each other by.