I’ve failed a lot – Here’s why that’s OK.

A favorite question of mine at recruitment interviews and one we are always hoping to hear interesting answers to is “Tell us (if comfortable) about your biggest failings”. We don’t usually get good answers and this may be because, culturally we are not comfortable talking about failure.

To do my part, to make it clear that failure is ok and you need to fail to learn, at a recent speech to students at a University, I opened my speech with a story of one my failures. Here is a lightly edited draft of the start to that speech:

Good morning everyone! Thank you very much for this opportunity.

I very much appreciate the intro you gave me, listing out my achievements – But as you also just heard I have failed many times. So before I talk about how we do research at Frontier, let me give you a little background into some of the things I have failed in.

This is me at age 17, with a trophy for the “best results” in my school.

Then I went off to Uni and in my final year:

  1. I got a lot more involved in varied student activities that involved public speaking – this is something I took up as a personal challenge in Uni, because public speaking was something I was terrified of before going to University.
  2. I also went into a very deep study of 19th and early 20th century stock market bubbles, which was an optional and very small part of my course load, but led me to ignore the rest of my studies till far too late.

I got totally burnt out doing all this and I went into full blown “panic mode” in the final two months of uni. I had had a really great time in university before then, but those final two months were a really bad period.

This is me at age 21. Absolutely shocked at seeing my degree results and realizing I had passed. I was quite convinced I had failed. With that expectation, just passing was great news to me, but the reality was that I was definitely well in the bottom half of my batch and my hopes of getting into a good graduate school for studying beyond my degree were gone, so I felt it was not a good end to my Uni Career.

And it does not stop there. I returned to Sri Lanka from Singapore, because I completely failed to make progress after an initial great break with my first job overseas.  Then, after starting Frontier, for the first seven years it was a ridiculously small business where, even in my seventh year, I really did not know if I would continue in business or just have to quit.

 I am sharing this for two reasons:

  1. Now looking back, the study of bubbles in the 19th/20th century (which I burnt myself out doing) is the material from Uni that I think is the most fundamentally useful to my work now. And the ability to speak publicly is far more useful that any results from Uni. So now, using the term popularized by Steve Jobs, the dots connect well backwards.
  2. If you ever go through a hard time, I hope this helps. Knowing that failing badly is the story behind many successful figures, as shown in the following graphic, has helped me, so hopefully more stories like this with a Sri Lankan context would help you

“Failing” is also often the result of doing something risky or different. But knowing that it’s ok to take that risk, because it often works out better in the longer term, despite the initial failing, helps to encourage others to be open to taking more risk – this is something we need to build a more entrepreneurial and creative workforce in Sri Lanka.

I am also putting this on the blog, as a message to anyone looking to join Frontier. We want to make it clear that we are not “conventional” in wanting to recruit people with only a straight line track of success. We want to recruit team members who have failed and learnt from it – those that can bring those learnings to Frontier. If that sounds like you, send us your details to http://frontiergroup.info/careers/

“Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.”

– Richard Branson.

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