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10 things you can learn from my 15 years of failure in life and business

man break dancing

aka… 10 things I wish my dad had taught me about failure.

Growing up in a traditional Asian household, my dad made it clear that academics were always a top priority and by top I mean the ONLY priority in my life. Straight A’s wasn’t a goal; it was a requirement. Even when I got all A’s and one B, that B stuck out like a sore thumb.

“What’s going on? How come you couldn’t get straight A’s?”

It wasn’t good enough that I got 90%, in his eyes, it had to be 100%. This created a lot of pressure and tension for me when it came to academics. I was already motivated to do well in school, but I hated the pressure of always having to be perfect.

I worked hard in high school and achieved straight A’s every semester until my senior year.

That year I would experience a different type of failure in life for the first time in my life.

It was something my dad never prepared me for, and I wished he had. That failure was a broken heart.

The summer before my senior year, my high school sweetheart of two years broke up with me.  She said it was because we were both going to be away for college and it didn’t make sense to maintain a long distance relationship.  I felt differently otherwise.

My senior year would end up being the year from hell.  I became reclusive, left school every day at lunch to avoid being there and got a 3.3 GPA, my worst ever.  But the worst decision was when I decided not to apply to my college of choice because I was afraid to go away for college. Instead, I stayed home and went to a local university.

That heartbreak kicked off a series of failures that I almost never recovered from.  I spent the next 15 years fighting addiction, depression, rejection, more heartbreaks, and even thoughts of suicide.  Those were very tough times, but these days I’m in a much better place after turning my life around in 2012.

I’ve learned quite a bit about failure first hand through that experience and here are the ten things I wish my dad had taught me about failure in life and in business:

failure in life and business - man at subway station

1. Failure comes in many forms

Failure is scary because it comes in so many forms, many of which we’re never truly prepared for.  While I grew up understanding failure in the context of school, I had to learn the hard way the other variations of failure.  Broken heart?  Check. Didn’t get that job I wanted?  Check again.  Falling out with a friend?  Yup, that was me.

Rather than associate failure with my grades, I wish my dad had taught me what failure was in general.  More specifically I what it feels like and how to deal with it when it happens.  This way I would be better prepared to deal with any type of failure opposed to just one.

I felt like my parents were too prescriptive when it came to raising me.  “Do that, don’t do this.”  While it’s straight to the point, I would’ve learned better had they added some context around why I should or should not do something.  Parents should always help their children understand why.

2. Failure is a normal part of life

Raise your hand if you’ve experienced at least one of the following:

  • Been fired or laid off from a job
  • Bombed an interview
  • Failed a test
  • Didn’t get into your dream school
  • Had your heart broken
  • Didn’t get the guy/gal you wanted
  • Let “the one” walk away
  • Been cheated on
  • Had a falling out with a friend/family member
  • Said something we regretted right afterward
  • Upset or disappointed someone we cared about
  • Lost money in the stock market
  • Lost money on a business venture

In about 30 seconds, I listed every type of failure I could think of that I’ve experienced in my life.  And I’m sure there’s more that you can add to this list.  We don’t always classify these experiences as failures, but it definitely feels like it when it happens.  The point I want to make is that failure is a normal part of life.  We shouldn’t look at failure as something to avoid but rather an experience that we can learn and grow from.

3. Why you fail is more important than how you fail

When my high school sweetheart broke up with me, she reasoned that we would be going off to different colleges and it didn’t make sense to stay together.  The following week, I saw her going to the Homecoming dancing holding hands with another guy.  I was furious.  Why did she lie to me?  How could she tell me one thing but do another?

One of my best traits as a child growing up was my ability to self-reflect.  Rather than point the finger at her, I looked at what I might’ve done to contribute to the breakup.  She was into athletics and played three sports year round.  I, on the other hand, was into academics.  After school when she would have her games, I would spend my time studying instead.  Looking back that might’ve been a factor since I wasn’t there to watch and support her.

Even though I was hurt and felt like she cheated on me, I knew it wasn’t 100% her fault.  I shouldered some of the blame myself.  Having this insight and self-reflection allowed me to work on myself and ensure that I don’t make the same mistakes again.

4. The sooner you accept failure, the sooner you can prepare for it

In 1987, I was seven years old and living in Los Angeles.  I remember one morning while playing in the playground at school during recess; the ground shook violently.  I saw kids running and hiding under benches, and at one point I saw the ground move like a wave in the ocean.  My friends and I didn’t know what to do so we stood in fear and held each other.

That was the first time I ever experienced an earthquake.  The next few weeks, the school educated us on earthquake safety and preparedness.  We learned what to do in the case of an earthquake, where to stand/hide under, and created emergency earthquake kits to take home.  It was this moment that taught me to always prepare for the worst.

Now that I’m older I use this same mentality when it comes to failure.  I don’t expect to get fired, have a divorce, or be homeless, but at the same time, I also understand I’m not immune.  Knowing these are all real possibilities, it forces me to be more mindful and present when it comes to my marriage and career.  I learn to not things for granted.

5. Failure is often a key step on the way to success

Sometimes I feel like the notion of success and failure gets misconstrued by how the media portrays it.  For example, when you watch the sporting events like the Superbowl there is a victor, a loser, and nothing in between.  People say there is no moral victory in losing, but I highly disagree.  Failure can teach us a great deal of what we need to improve in order to be successful.

Take a look at some of the most successful people in recent history and see how their failures propelled them to further success.  Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.  Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a news anchor.  Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, his own company that he started.  Needless to say, all three of these people did pretty well for themselves despite their failures.

I know I used three well-known celebrities in my example, but I encourage you to talk to people you consider successful in your circle.   I’m sure they will all have some story about the struggles they had to overcome to get to where they are today.  While the media embellishes overnight success stories, what they don’t tell you are the 10+ years of sleepless nights it took to get there.

failure in life and business - man in beanie

6. Don’t let your fear of failure hold you back

In high school, my parents gave me the assignment of cleaning out the garage on a Saturday morning.  Rather than complain about the chore, I decided to have a little fun with it.  In our garage, we stored everything you could think of like old computers, toys, and clothes nobody wore anymore.

Instead of throwing them way, I decided I was going to host a garage sale.  I laid everything out on the lawn, posted flyers on the lamp posts in my neighborhood, and waited for customers to trickle in.  I made about $100 that day which wasn’t bad considering I was going to throw most of the stuff away anyway.  Being an entrepreneur was something I knew I was destined for.

However, I lost my way in my 20’s because of my struggles with addiction and depression.  The fear of failing prevented me taking risks in my career to do meaningful work.  I kept telling myself I wasn’t good enough even though I knew it wasn’t true.  It wasn’t until I turned my life around and got over my fear of failing was I able to finally become my own boss.

7. It is okay to fail as long as you don’t give up

I went to a leadership retreat a few weeks ago.  There were about 80 people total, and we were all split into smaller groups of six each with its own group leader.  On the first night during dinner, we each had to share a crucible moment in our lives.  If you’re not familiar with what a crucible moment is, it’s an example of a time where you faced extreme hardship or adversity only to come out of it a better person.

When it came time for me to share, I talked about my break up after college and how that led me down the path of destruction.  As I shared my story and got to the part about how I used to think about suicide, I started to cry.  I cried because I felt sorry for myself.  I cried because I could remember how much pain I felt back then.  But as I continued, I shared how resilient I had become and was able to rebuild my life.

One of my teammates looked at me and said, “If there’s anything I could take away from your story, it’s the fact that no matter how tough things look you can always start over.”  She was absolutely right because no matter how many times I failed, I never gave up.  My persistent to fight was what led me to evolve into the person I am today.

8. It’s not failing if you’re learning

In 2013, I was determined to figure out how to make a dollar selling something digital on the Internet.  Not $100, $10, or $5; I was simply focused on making a single dollar.  After doing some keyword research, I settled on creating an eBook on how to crate train puppies.  There was decent search volume each month with very little competition for products.

I spent about two weeks researching and writing the eBook.  I then created a sales page, uploaded my eBook on the web, and connected it to a payment processing system.  I had a $100 coupon for Google Adwords and decided to use Adwords to drive traffic over.  I set up my Adwords campaigns on a Saturday night and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up early and found I had made two sales for a total of $30.  I couldn’t believe my eyes; I actually did it.  I decided to continue running ads for two more weeks.  In the end, I spent $250 in ads only to make two more sales for a final total of $60.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t turn a profit because the reward was in the learning.

9. Sometimes failure is beyond your control, and that’s okay

When I graduated college in 2004, I went to work at Sun Microsystems, one of the largest renowned tech companies in the world at the time. Sun Microsystems or Sun as I like to call it, was such a well-respected company.  Working there back then is the equivalent of working at Apple, Facebook, or Google today.  When I was hired on, I thought my career was set.

Unfortunately when I came on board, Sun was going through a rough time.  The company had some key poor decisions that caused them to severely lose ground in the market.  Then in 2009, Sun was acquired by Oracle, and a majority of the workforce was laid off including me.  Just imagine if Facebook as a company no longer existed; that’s what it felt like.

I loved working at Sun, and even though it wasn’t my fault that I no longer had a job, I felt extremely dejected.  I was embarrassed to apply at other companies because I felt like a failure.  It was the first time I’ve ever been laid off from a job, and it wouldn’t be the last.  But even through all that I still ended up in a meaningful career doing what I love.  Not too shabby I would say.

10. Learn to embrace failure

My parents immigrated from Vietnam in 1980 to escape the communists.  They had absolutely nothing when they came to the US outside of a few suitcases.  They collected cans, picked strawberries in the fields, and did whatever odd jobs they could find to provide for my siblings and me.  With a little luck, my dad found steady work as a furniture delivery man.

My dad worked long hours and worked his way up to be a salesman where he learned the ins and outs of owning a furniture store.  Eventually, he would save up enough money to open up his own furniture store; it was a very proud moment for him.  My dad soon found out that running a business is much tougher than working in a business.  The furniture store struggled, and after a few years, it went out of business.  It was very tough on my dad.

I can understand why my dad pushed me so hard in school.  He didn’t want me to experience failure like how he had experienced failure, but I would’ve experienced failure one way or another.  There was nothing he could’ve done to shield me from it.  The best thing he could’ve done which to use his experience and teach me how to embrace failure instead of fear it.

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Written by Hung Pham

In his 20’s Hung struggled with a serious gambling addiction and severe depression only to turn his life around beginning in 2012.  Today, Hung is the founder of Culture Summit, a conference that helps companies build stronger cultures.  He regularly writes about personal development on his blog Mission and Possible.  To learn the 5 key strategies he used to turn his life around, download the free guide at here.
Hung Pham’s Website

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