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. I essentially hid the fact that I failed for years. I convinced myself it was just “a pivot” but I learned something important I want to share with you. Failure is fuel, but only when 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, keeping the founding date of the original company. But that change (or lack of change) was me not yet fully embracing what had happened. I had failed. And not until I came to terms with it, did I finally grow.

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 Heart of America Group. A job I had moved from Minneapolis to Des Moines for. I’ll spare you the details, but after stealing business from a competitor, they sent me a letter thanking me for interviewing for a job I never applied for. My new boss, Rob, immediately fired me, despite my claims it wasn’t true. 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 had convinced myself it was my only 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, right? Would I be able to get another job if I failed?

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 day by day. I grew more 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 company sale. No fake “acquisition.” I just ended it. I wish I knew the signs of when to give up.

I got a stealth job with a friend to pay the pills as I contemplated my next move. Then something truly bizarre happened. My focus on failure 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 my company 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. I was elated the business I couldn’t live without, was dead.

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—I was already failing. I just hadn’t admitted it to myself. That day was the start of something bigger.

My own personal growth had renewed energy because I learned, failure is fuel. I used that fuel to improve my own skill as a business owner and entrepreneur. I used that fuel to move forward. But why exactly did it work only after everything collapsed? Because I acknowledged it.

Failure Is Fuel… but only when acknowledged

Having the strength to share your failure with others combined with true self-evaluation is incredible fuel. Problems leading to failure that would otherwise be ignored, provide insight impossible to see otherwise. My will to succeed and stubbornness blocked out my ability to learn a few important lessons.

Here are some key lessons from my very long list I wouldn’t have learned without accepting my failure, and committing to improvement.

  • Focus on natural skill: I only produced good work, because I spent an insanely large amount of time on it. But I wasn’t fast or naturally good at design. Other designers were faster and better. Competing burned me out. I needed to focus on my God-given skills.
  • Finances: I didn’t do a great job watching my finances. I bought too many lunches and sales handouts for prospects without asking myself if they were a great fit. I later learned, a great client doesn’t expect or ask for handouts. They want to be heard and they want deliverables. Period.
  • Working with losers: I said yes to every project because I needed money. Don’t put yourself in a position where you are desperate enough that you will work with a company that is a poor fit. Always be filling your sales funnel, even when times are great.
  • I didn’t know my strengths: I was an activator and futurist but I had no idea people couldn’t see what I saw. I didn’t understand the strong aversion to immediate action people have. I thought people were stubborn and lazy, but people really do think differently. When I learned this, my relationships improved.
  • Giving up and accepting defeat: I didn’t know when to give up, and didn’t know how. Accepting my failure, led me down a better path.

Failure is fuel however only when you acknowledge a failure has happened in the first place. The “failure is not an option” folks are deluding themselves. Everyone fails, but not everyone admits or confronts it. Failure hypocrisy leads to poor leadership, loss of trust, and a lack of creativity. Like a soldier mortally wounded in a war that refuses to see a medic, failure not acknowledged leads to death.

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How Embracing Failure Leads To Improvement

When I failed to connect with people in my first business and build better customer relationships I didn’t ask why. I just grew impatient with “lazy” people who didn’t want to do their job. But when I embraced that I had failed in my business relationships, I was able to explore why. Finding why was the breakthrough I needed; it led me to take the strengths finder assessment and hire a coach. 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 and have zero interest in 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—I didn’t know this was a thing. Great clients don’t need your free lunch, they want you to listen and identify their needs. Period.

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 over $2000 per month.)

I want to be clear, you should never celebrate failure—the familiar fail fast, pivot quickly adage is actually quite stupid as Riz Virk explained to me. But when it does happen after hard work failure can be an amazing teacher. Failure is fuel to start a better company. Failure can teach you how to make more money, but only when you acknowledge it in humility, confront it, and commit to improving yourself.

How To Notice, Assess and Personal Failure

To learn from failure you must know what it looks like, and approach the failure process scientifically. You won’t “know it” when it happens. Your emotions will prevent you from seeing it accurately.

First, decide in advance, when you miss a deadline, deliverable, or revenue target, you failed. Don’t wish for it, but have a battle plan when it happens to you. When we plan for it, failure is fuel. (Today, I write in my agreements, how we move forward when we fail.)

Second, write down your failures, and ask why you failed. This piece serves as my reminder. Was your goal too ambitious? Did you screw something up? Did you lack the talent? Could you have hit that goal? What it would look like if you had hit your goal? Were you mentally prepared? Did you have a coach? Do you need therapy?

Third, 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 losers and successful folks is that losers lie to themselves.

Fourth, know when to give up. Successful people telling you to not give up are either not truly successful, or have selective memory about their own failures. 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.

Failure is Fuel

We can accept failure from ourselves and others without applauding it. The fact is, when we fail, we fail our teams, our family, our friends, our coaches, and others. We all fail at times. Use it as an opportunity to learn, grow and get better.

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Hi, I’m Justin Brady. I amplify inventive companies (and their people) to new audiences by identifying and utilizing their customer’s trust channels. I wrote for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and I hosted the founders of Starbucks, Hint and on my podcast.
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