Fail Forward

fail forward

Any successful person you meet will have a story of failure to tell you, and actually probably more than one. What separates the truly successful from those who skate by in life is not just what they learn from those failures well after they happen, but also how they handle those failures as they happen. These are delicate situations that can literally make or break a person’s life for a long time to come.

I’m about to tell you a story of how I faced a very difficult situation of failure which I could do very little about, and how I was able to turn that failure into an eventual long-term success.

Rewind to 2007

I’m running a six figure IT consulting business. My partner and I are securing contract after contract each month, building our portfolio of business from nothing a couple of years prior, to approaching $300,000 in annual revenue. We’re adding multiple streams of revenue, building a book of recurring commissions, and simply crushing it each and every day.

Then… Boom. The crash of 2008 hits and business starts to slow greatly.

Long story short, we lose a big chunk of our business, company morale plummets, and the market for our services just isn’t the same.

To make matters worse, the clients that we do have left become more demanding of our time, and essentially make our lives quite unhappy.

I was still making decent money and still liked what I did to a point, but my partner wasn’t in it mentally anymore, and rightfully so. The work had become pretty stressful. It was then that I realized it wasn’t going to work out for the long term.

So smack dab in the middle of the worst economic crisis in the past 75 years, I decided to sell my shares of the company and set out to find a new venture – something I knew I was going to make a life out of.

That was probably the most difficult decision I had ever made in my life. I was going from being a powerful business owner with a really nice income, to being unemployed and having no income at all. And you don’t get unemployment benefits when you sell a small business.

I somehow had to break that news to my girlfriend at the time (who I’ll soon be married to). I was in the middle of graduate school with an expensive tuition payment approaching, and to top it all off, my business partner was none other than my brother.

It was a difficult time indeed, but I had to make a change. So I made the difficult decision to accept failure and put this venture in my past. And I knew I had to “fail forward.”

Fail Forward?

This is a concept that all successful and effective people do well. They understand that sometimes failure is necessary. They understand that sometimes change is needed. And they understand that just because a particular venture, experiment, or project didn’t work out in their lives, that doesn’t mean it’s the complete end of the world.

And I knew that this was one of those times. I knew I had to fail forward.

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I had faith in myself that I’d be ok. I always had 100% belief in myself that I’d find my calling. Even when some of the closest people in my life questioned my decision, even when people told me I was an idiot for doing what I did, there wasn’t one single second that I ever regretted it. I knew I had to move on.

The Next Chapter

Over the course of the next year or so I struggled to make ends meet as I worked to finish my graduate degree and tried to land a job in the IT field. I had a bit of money saved up, and had a side project going that I made a little bit extra with, but that didn’t make up for all of my monthly expenses, not even close.

My back up fund was dwindling, and there was no end in sight, at least no end that anyone else could see.

Some people told me I should put my graduate degree aside while I looked for work, but I knew that was only going to hold me back in the future. That would only make it harder to go back to school once I did find something. And truthfully that was one of the few positive situations I had in my life at that point. I needed it to stay in a good mindset.

It was all really tough. I’m sure I wasn’t a wonderful person to be around, but I kept going. I kept my faith alive. I kept networking. I kept bettering myself. I kept seeking my dream job.

When I needed money I worked odd jobs, temporary jobs, sold my possessions, and even tried insurance sales as a way to make ends meet (which was awful). I actually had a few offers along the way, but none of it was what I really wanted to do. So I kept looking.

And then something happened. I got the email that turned my life around.

That email notified me that I got an internship that I applied for at a growing small business in Louisville, KY. It paid peanuts compared to what I was used to at my IT business, but it was a great opportunity, I knew it was something that I would love, and it was genuinely something I could make a career out of.

So I immediately went to work there. It was only a part-time gig, but I saw what it could lead to. So I dug in, learned and implemented everything I knew that applied to their business, and eventually used my skills with online marketing to essentially double their book of business over the next year or so.

When I finally finished graduate school and received my MBA I was hired on full-time there, got a pretty nice raise, and started to make a decent living.

I actually felt pretty good about myself at that point. It was a good job, but it wasn’t ever going to work out to be a solid long-term situation. The people were great and the company was great, but the resources of the small business life were slim. I knew I could do better. So while I was working there I kept looking, all while still failing forward.

And then it all came together.

The Breakthrough

A few months later I got a call from a large company in town where I had a connection that I had made in graduate school (which I wouldn’t have made had I postponed finishing). They had heard of my skills and wanted to see if I would fit in with their marketing team.

After about two months of exploratory interviews, I went to work there under the terms of a “post-graduate co-op” agreement. The US economy was still so tough at that time that many companies still weren’t guaranteeing jobs even when you already worked for them, and especially for new hires.

It was a “try before you buy” type of situation.

So this was a pretty big leap of faith for me. It paid about the same, yet I still had to prove myself and do amazing work if it was going to work out.

It was at that point where my belief in myself became hugely important. If I hadn’t been fully confident in my abilities I probably wouldn’t have gone for it.

But I was and I saw a really good long-term opportunity at that company. So I decided to take that leap of faith.

After about 6 months in this high pressure situation, I had proven my worth to the company and they hired me on full time as a Web Project Manager, and at a salary that paid significantly more than I had ever made.

I had finally recovered. I had finally finished failing forward.

That all took place over about a four year period and finally things were ok.

Let’s Rewind and Reflect

Rewind to when I left my business in 2008.

Had I not made that conscious decision to “fail forward,” to make a huge long-term change that I knew was going to be tough to do, to continue to improve myself and my skills along the way, there is no way I would be where I am today.

It was because of that faith, that mindset that my failure was going to lead to better things, that I ultimately succeeded.

That is what I want you to takeaway from this story.

Some people will tell you that failure is not an option, and I think that mindset is great for determination, but the fact is that sometimes things just aren’t in your control, and you might fail.

If that does happen in your life, I want you to recognize that failure as a good thing. Recognize it as an opportunity to start fresh and improve yourself.

Make that conscious decision to ‘fail forward.’ Figure out what you need to do to get to the next chapter in your life, and use that opportunity become greater than you ever were before.

Photo by seanmcgrath

20 thoughts on “Fail Forward”

  1. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I had faith in myself that I’d be ok. I always had 100% belief in myself that I’d find my calling.”

    Been there before. I took the leap and never looked back. I am suprised I did it looking back, but my life will never be the same.

    Dan Garner

  2. I appreciate you were willing to share your experience. It is great when the decisions you make work out for the best. Even better when you have the supports in your life you need from the beginning that got you to graduate school in the first place. There are many people who can relate to your experience and benefit. I can only relate on a small philosophical level. As you continue to be a voice for your generation I hope you will expand your own horizons into the realm of those who begin on a far less opportunistic ground. It begins with support and beliefs as a child. If you can reach people on that level then you will have done something.

  3. I can’t stress that point enough. Belief is such a critical key to success. I’m glad things worked out for you Dan. Keep shooting for the stars!

    Man. It still chokes me up a bit to tell that story.

  4. Great story and good lesson for everyone. Life holds so many opportunities if we just keep moving and stay open to the options. You said you finally finished “failing forward” but in a way, are we ever finished? Truly, we should hope not!

    Our entire life’s journey could be filled with the adventures of failing even while succeeding. I’d like to think we never reach success but we’re always succeeding.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Cody. Very well done.

    1. Very good point. I like to think of those little failures as necessary points to make course corrections towards success.

      I feel like I closed the book on that failure, and am in a very positive situation now, however there will be many others along the way – Hopefully not as epic as that one!

  5. So sorry that the Insurance sales position was apparently the absolute worse job you ever had. It is my dream. I have been struggling for 3 1/2 years to operate an Independent Insurance Agency that allows agents the “power of an agency” in negotiations and commissions, while they remain owners of their own agency. I take $0 of their commission and provide office space, phones, marketing, training and support. To take advantage of all this, the agent must be honest, dependable, reliable and thrilled that he/she has the opportunity to educate and assist their prospective clients in one of the most important decisions they will ever make. If you think that statement is a little egotistical, talk to the lady who just lost her house because her husband has cancer and no insurance; talk to the gentleman who must decide which medication he can get this month because he cannot afford all of them, and he has no prescription coverage. Talk to the senior who never met an agent that would take the time to educate her about a plan that has dental benefits, so she just tolerates the pain as her teeth rot out. Most of my agents think this career is something of a calling; I guess that phone just wasn’t ringing for you. And Failing Forward… Everyday I struggle to find a way to pay the bills, but the struggle continues because I have faith in me and what I am doing. The rewards will come when the time is right.

    1. Didnt mean to insult anyone’s profession. It just wasn’t for me. There were a lot of people there that loved it and we’re very well off because of it. But I was destined for something else. That’s all.

  6. Cody, question if you will: it sounds like things worked out very well for you, but in reading this I was wondering about your brother.

    You mentioned that you sold your half of the company during a really bad economic time, which must’ve been difficult for your brother/business partner. What happened to him? Was he able to succeed? I know you wanted to move on, but I’m not sure I would’ve left my brother in this situation. I think sometimes making at leap of faith needs to include loved ones around you — you need to try and do things in a way that promotes their success, too. We are all our brother’s keepers…

    1. Good question and thanks for asking. Trust me. It was hard for me to do. I actually helped him out to make sure he would be ok until he was able to figure out his next step. One, as a responsible business partner. Two, as a good person. And three, because that’s what brothers do.

      He actually ended up making more without my salary draw, however it was more difficult to manage and the business couldn’t sustain for long without me.

      That was hard to do because I didn’t get paid for it and did this for about six months, but I wouldn’t change it at all. I knew he needed a change too, and he’s much happier now because of this.

      He’s actually been hustling on his own since he was 16 and has more fail forward stories than anyone should before his age. I knew he would be fine, or I wouldn’t have left.

      He still does some of what we did on the side, and also runs a sound manager business for local shows, events, etc.

      His story would be far more dynamic than mine!

  7. We should all look at failure as a way to improve ourselves not as a way of being personally rejected. We are all in charge of how we respond to every situation. I totally love the idea of failing forward. This is a great story Cody, thanks for sharing.

  8. I don’t think of Cody’s experience as a failure at all, in fact I think it demonstrates all the skills that are needed to succeed, especially resiliency, resourcefulness and ability to have a vision about what works and what does not work. Many believe that success is achieved on a linear path, but in fact it about learning and trying new things with each experience moving you up a notch or two.
    I am in a similar situation where I started a business in 2008 and immediately learned that my partners were not driven enough to be competitive in the market. We were fortunate enough to have a couple of loyal clients which kept us in business through this year. I was torn about the wasted opportunity in not being able to put our resources together to really create something but did not want to abandon the company and really did not want to just go and work for someone else. My partners instead abandon the business and I have one client left. I am now in the reinvention phase and live each day with prayer and faith that I can turn things around. I live in Asia so I am able to make good money teaching English (starting an English school is a fallback option). Recently I have been brought on with a start-up company as a freelancer. The people are smart, driven, have a vision and understand the long-term market opportunity. This is the exact type of environment which I am able to thrive. It is easy to look at my situation as a failure where I had to start over, but I prefer to look at the situation as a growth / learning experience no different than going to business school. Certainly, the past years have been filled with frustration, however it enabled me to establish myself in Asia while being fortunate to make enough money to pay my bills and it taught me a critical lesson in choosing business partners.

    1. Nice positive outlook LJ. It’s good that you are approaching the situation with such an open mind and sense of relentlessness. It sounds like the freelance opportunity could turn into a nice situation for you. I hope it does. Keep pushing forward and never lose that believe in yourself. That’s what will keep you successful throughout this transition.

      Good luck to you!

  9. Well Hello Cody, thanks for sharing this story this really illustrates the power of positive thought. Through this you made connections during your time in graduate school that although at the time were insignificant, further down the line they came back to reward you for this consistency of mindset.

    As you say have faith in yourself, your skills and always focus on the long term rather than the short term pain and you will get to where you desire.

    igor Griffiths

  10. Dear Cody, It was inspiring….. Few years back i faced a similiar situation…. The Airline company which i worked bankrupted and didnt pay salary for two months, closed the shutters and left me stranded… I was jobless for 4 months & all my savings washed away… I attended several interviews failed in few offered with lower grades in some…. I would have selected those grades but i beleived myself that i can get what i wanted…. Then came my opportunity where i was offered with less salary but with the position what i wanted i proved my stand in the company in 6 months time and enjoys benefits now…. Had i surrendered my belief i would not have been in a place where i am at present. It is truly faith and belief which kept me going… I can face any failures in life which ultimately will enable me strength to move forward……

    1. This sounds like a tough experience, but a great ending. This will be with you your entire life. Always remember this situation and always keep that belief in yourself alive.

  11. Cody, thank you for your post!

    I believe failures make you stronger. But I have a problem of recovering from them quickly. The truth is that even the small failure may make me inactive for a long period of time. Don’t know how to overcome it faster.

    1. Hi Alex. Glad to share.

      I know this is a hard thing. Believe me this was a really tough experience for me. Any failure is. The trick to recovering quickly is that you keep a positive mindset that your failure is leading to something better. Keep that faith alive. Draw from your past experiences of recovery and use them to keep you going. You’ve done it before, so you can do it again, and even better this time.

      That conscious decision to fail forward is what is going to keep you going and get you back on the path of success.

      Also recognize that dwelling on a failure is going to do nothing for you. Dwell on your wins, not your losses. Keep your mind focused on your future goals and you’ll be in much better shape to recover quicker.

      Hope this helps. Feel free to get in touch with me if you need to.

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