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How I learned to be motivated by failure

This CEO believed that failure accelerated, rather than stalled, his career.

How I learned to be motivated by failure
[Photo: Flickr user Nesster]

When I was starting out in my career, I had all the determination, motivation, and confidence. I graduated early from Washington University in St. Louis with a computer science degree, and soon after began my first position as a warehouse engineer for General Mills. I was the most junior engineer at the time, but it didn’t take long for me to show that I was a high-performing worker.

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I took on an assignment to upgrade the warehouse management system in support of the Yoplait warehouse. I thought I could dive in headfirst, but I quickly realized that, despite how well I had been doing so far, there was a lot I didn’t know. I’d spent my time as an engineer for the cereal warehouse, which as one might expect, is set up quite differently from the yogurt warehouse. After 54 hours of trying to make it work, with a mile and a half of trucks and trailers lined up outside, I realized I didn’t understand the business. I had to wave the white flag and ask for help.

As scary as it seems, that unfortunate incident didn’t end my career. I would say it did the opposite: It accelerated it because it taught me how to let failure motivate me.

The importance of confronting failure

Nobody wants to fail. As a result, people tend to avoid talking about it, but we all know it happens for a wide variety of reasons. Yes, confronting failure is a grueling task, and far from pleasant. But once you’ve done that, you’ll find that it can give you the motivation you didn’t realize you had to transform yourself for the better.

The General Mills situation revealed to me that there’s a difference between being eager and being reckless. Did you do your best and carefully plan but still fall short? Or did you run into a situation recklessly and perform poorly as a result? How you feel when you come across with failure will be heavily dependent on how you start out. That’s why one of the best ways to let failure motivate you is to always be prepared for failure.

How to prepare for failure

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need some sort of contingency, or that you should expect failure around every corner. But when you acknowledge that it’s a possibility, you can approach moments with a better understanding of what a situation requires (and gauge your capabilities and experience accordingly.) If the goal seems just out of your reach, you can use your best judgment to decide whether or not you can push yourself to achieve it, or whether it would be better to seek help or find a different approach.

Preparing for failure requires you to have a mental image of what both failure and success in a particular scenario would look like. If you have a clear picture of what to avoid and what to strive for, you have a goal to run toward and a fear to run away from. I attribute much of my success to a fear of failure and an innate fear of not letting others down. Fear can be a powerful motivator, so long as you don’t let it paralyze you.

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On dealing with fear

I learned this lesson later in my career when a company I worked for brought on an external consulting firm to help make decisions and adjust our business strategy. The CEO was quite convinced they were correct in their assessments and ended up hiring some of the firm’s leaders as partners in the company. Along the way, I could see that they were making reckless decisions, but I stayed silent and watched as my influence in the company dwindled.

After a year of engagement and nearly running the company into the ground, the hired individuals were kicked out, and they fired the firm. The CEO approached me and asked me a question I didn’t expect to hear: “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Sure I wasn’t the one making damaging decisions, but I realized that I had failed in my role. I stayed silent because I didn’t want to lose my job, even when I knew that the firm wasn’t acting in the best interest of the company. I realized that if I ever hoped to be a leader in my field, I needed to force myself out of my comfort zone and wrap my hands around risk taking. I needed to be able to show leaders and colleagues that I was willing to take the necessary risks to best set the company up for success.

The biggest lessons often comes from the biggest failures

It may seem strange to say that failure taught me to take more risks, but in reality, calculated risks will lead to success. Either it pays off and you move forward, or it doesn’t, but you get valuable insight on what could be improved.

Every failure teaches you a lesson, especially one that occurs on a large scale. Often, the failures that count aren’t the ones that involve just correcting a few mistakes. They end up being the ones that test who you are as a person and as a worker. They force you to re-examine your values and priorities or reaffirm your motivations or changing them. Maybe you were making a particular aspect of your business a priority, but it didn’t generate the change that you wanted. This might be a sign that you need to switch gears and find the success you were looking for in the first place.

I do not doubt that my failures have made me a better leader and worker. In my current role as the CEO of a company that helps small and medium businesses grow, those learning experiences have helped me understand the ups and downs of running and managing a business. This has allowed me to serve my clients better.

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Your failures are not your defining moments, and if you can overcome those failures and use them to motivate you, you’ll find that you have more opportunities for success than you might have otherwise.


Michael Schnapf is the CEO of MoreCommerce, a wholly owned subsidiary of Alibaba Group.

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