A People Person #3 - How being really bad at "Army stuff" taught me to embrace failure.
Hi again, A friend of mine once told me, “You’re really good at falling on your face and getting back up.” He meant this as a compliment (I think . . . he’s in finance, so it’s always hard to tell). And he’s right. I have gotten good at the cycle of swing, miss, learn, repeat.
But it took practice. I used to be more of a perfectionist and I hesitated to try new things until I felt confident I was prepared. Then I joined the army where I was really bad at many things. This isn’t me being harsh on myself – I was truly bad at many skills the army valued. I still remember trying to jump across a small creek and stumbling on the edge. Then I looked to my right and saw a soldier, who had literally played in the NFL, do a standing broad jump and clear the creek easily.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about professional failure in light of the recession, layoffs, and folding companies. I’m interested in being more open about failure for many reasons — it’s good for mental health, vulnerable and authentic leadership is important, I want my son to try hard things – but I also want to talk about failure because I think there’s a gendered component. This take might be hot for some and lukewarm for others, but it’s a take nonetheless:
Women aren’t encouraged to fail.
What do I mean? Well, I was talking to one of my favorite women CEOs a while back, and we learned that we’d both started companies that had failed. I said, “I never talk about it publicly,” and she said, “Yeah, women founders don’t.” Contrast this with a very common trope of men founders, which goes something like this — he failed at his first few companies, which lit a fire, and he knocked the next one out of the park. I think women don’t talk about failures as much because women are judged by their past experience, whereas men are judged based on potential. For example, this study shows how the idea of “potential” disproportionately helps men candidates. I don’t know how to “fix” this but I figure talking more about failure is a good starting point, so here’s one.
Exec Failure Storytime I started a company that I poured about two years of my life into, and, financially, got very little out of. The short version is this: I started a company, called Supper Meals, with a grad school friend of mine. The idea was to create a marketplace of professional kitchens and commercial chefs, and deliver their ready-to-eat meals primarily to suburban families. I put a ton of effort into this company – I missed birthdays and weddings trying to get this off the ground. But I just couldn’t make it work. In the end, we ended up selling the company for a very modest exit to a local company. Financially, there’s no question – this one goes in the L column. (Side note, I now use what is basically the successful version of my failed company, called Cook Unity. It is great.) The one upside is that failing at building a company taught me that even a “big” failure didn’t sting as much as I thought it would. I used to feel like it would be awful to have to meet up with friends and have to tell them that I was figuring out what was next because my company failed.
But, turns out, it’s not the end of the world.
I’m reminded of that Schitt’s Creek scene where Alexis tells David that everyone is so focused on themselves that no one really notices your mistakes. They’re too caught up in their own lives. Sitcom wisdom aside, failure still stings. And I’m metaphorically stumbling into creeks all the time. But when I mess up, I’m working on framing that “mistake” as data, meaning I’m learning something about myself or the world that I can use when I try again.
Try, try again. Thanks for reading, and I welcome any thoughts you have on what can be learned from failure and how mistakes have shaped your journey.
Thanks for chatting with me today, Roxanne Petraeus CEO & Co-founder, Ethena