Failure Is Fuel… But What Does That Mean?

I recently updated my LinkedIn profile to clearly show the time of death for Test of Time Design, my first startup. Why? Because failure is fuel. But it doesn’t become real until it’s acknowledged.

Back in 2017, I changed the focus of my private consulting work to emerging tech PR communications, renaming my company to Cultivate. At the time, I just updated my LinkedIn profile with the new company name, not giving it a second thought. But, that change (or lack of change) was me not yet fully embracing what had happened. I had failed.

When Your Business Dies… But You Won’t Let It

I distinctly remember starting Test of Time Design back in 2008. I had just been fired from a hotel management company I had moved from Minneapolis to Des Moines, Iowa for. I called my wife on the way home, and she simply said, “well, I think it’s time to start your own company.” That was it. Then she supported me through the hell of starting my business.

Justin Brady's Test of Time Design name badge made of bronze.
My old Test of Time Design name badge

I was petrified. I wanted this company to work badly and knew it was my future. I asked myself, what if it didn’t work out? Not only would my only dream be crushed—I’d be labeled for life. Every laid off or fired person becomes a consultant, but if I fail again I’m screwed.

Later, when I hit some tough spots I reached out to a business owner to ask how he felt about his businesses early on and through various trials. Were my feelings normal? He confirmed he had felt the same way when he started his business. So, I kept fighting, losing more income, becoming more depressed, anxious, and angry every day.

I was trapped in my own dream, lying to myself about still wanting the dream at all. Only after I ran out of cash, and suffered a few personal tragedies at the same time, did I decide it was over. My hope was gone and I finally stopped caring. No sale. No fake “acquisition.” I just ended it. I wish I knew the signs when to give up.

I got a stealth job with a friend to pay the pills as I pivoted strategies and contemplated my next move. Then something truly bizarre happened. I changed. And my dreams changed with me.

It’s Truly Bizarre, But “Concrete” Dreams Do Change

It was a gut punch, but the official death of Test of Time Design was a relief in a bizarre way. I was released from a mental prison I had locked myself in. After I started what would become Cultivate did I realize something crazy: I hated Test of Time Design and didn’t miss it at all. I was elated the business I didn’t think I couldn’t live without, was dead. I want this to penetrate deep into your brain, so here’s a pull quote.

I was elated the business I didn’t think I couldn’t live without, finally died.

My brain had locked me into some kind of survival mechanism rooted in the sunk cost fallacy. Only when I admitted failure to myself, was I able to see the bad situation I was in—that was the start of something bigger.

My own personal growth had renewed fuel. And I used that fuel to improve my own skill as a business owner and entrepreneur. But why exactly did it work only after everything collapsed? Because I acknowledged it.

Failure Is Fuel only when acknowledged

determined man with white words on photo saying "failure is fuel"

Having the strength to share your failure with others combined with true self-evaluation is incredible fuel. Problems that would otherwise be ignored, provide insights that are impossible to see otherwise. My will to succeed blocked out my ability to learn a few important lessons. Here are a few from my very long list:

  • I only produced good work, because I spent an insanely large amount of time, but I wasn’t fast or naturally good at graphic design. Other designers were faster and better. Competing burned me out.
  • I didn’t do a great job watching my finances. I bought too many expensive lunches for freeloading prospects, without asking myself if they were a great fit.
  • I said yes to every project because I needed money. Don’t put yourself in a position where you need money bad enough that you will work with idiots.
  • I was an activator and futurist. I had no idea people couldn’t see what I saw, and I didn’t understand the strong aversion to action people have. People really do think differently and it’s beautiful!
  • I didn’t know when to give up, and didn’t know how.

Failure is fuel however only when you acknowledge a failure has happened in the first place. “Failure is not an option” folks delude themselves, opting to ignore, block out, or delay their failure. Like a soldier mortally wounded in war that refuses to see a medic, failure not acknowledged leads to death.

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How Embracing Failure Leads To Improvement

If you don’t acknowledge the failure, you can’t learn the lessons of why you failed. When I failed to connect with people in my first business, I didn’t ask why. I just grew impatient at “lazy” people who didn’t want to do their job. But when I embraced that I had failed in some business relationships, I was able to explore why. That led me to take the strengths finder assessment, and that changed the way I work with people.

Had I not embraced failure in business finances, I would have never corrected the areas I was overspending on. I learned, counter to my belief, executives will gladly eat a free lunch with you with zero interest of doing business with you. After all, they get a free lunch, get out of the office, and can tell their boss how busy they were researching options for the company.

Failing at my finances also caused me to move into a coworking space for my 2nd go-round, giving me way more bang for my buck. (I saved nearly $2000 per month.)

I want to be clear, you shouldn’t celebrate failure—the familiar fail fast, pivot quickly adage we all know and love is actually quite stupid. But when it does happen after hard work, failure is fuel for your career and an amazing teacher. Failure is fuel to start a better company. Failure will make more money, but only when you acknowledge it the second it happens. And how do you do that?

How To Notice and Assess Personal Failure

In order to learn from failure, you have to know what it looks like and you have to approach the failure process scientifically. You won’t’ just “know it” when it happens. Your emotions will prevent you from seeing it.

First, decide in advance, when you miss a deadline, deliverable, or revenue target, you failed. Don’t wish for it, but expect it. Plan for it. And have a battle plan for when it happens to you. (Today, I literally write into my contracts that I will fail at stuff.)

Second, write down your failures, and ask why you failed. This blog post partially serves as my reminder. Was your goal too ambitious? Did you screw something up? Could you have hit that goal? What it would look like if you had hit your goal?

Thirdly, connect to a trusted group or vetted coach that won’t betray you. Be honest with them about your failures and ask them to be direct. The only difference between people who are failures and people who aren’t is that they’re lying. Don’t fall victim to failure hypocrisy.

Fourth, know when to give up. There are some clear signs you shouldn’t ignore. Remember, failure isn’t a point in time. It’s not an end. Failure is fuel.

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