Years ago, my buddy Mike Maddock told me about Larry Walters, the California truck driver who became famous when he flew to 15,000 feet… in his lawn chair. (Read the story in Maddock’s book, Free The Idea Monkey.) Walters’ eyesight kept him from his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, so he cooked up a plan to make it to the friendly skies.
The Flying Lawn Chair
After tying 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair, Walters the “Lawn Chair Pilot,” defied all of the people who thought he was a complete nutcase and actually flew straight up out of his backyard… and into controlled airspace.
Walters assumed he could descend easily and safely by using his pellet gun to shoot the balloons one at a time, but things didn’t go exactly to plan. He ended up landing on some power lines, causing a blackout in a neighborhood in Long Beach, and SHOULD have dropped to his death.
But he didn’t. For forty-five minutes, Larry Walters flew. He flew.
Failure Is Natural
Nature is all about failure. Most seeds don’t take root. A pine tree could drop 1,000 pine cones – right onto the hood of your car, thank you very much – but how many will actually become trees? (No seriously… how many? I searched for the answer for this, so if you know, please write it in the comments. I MUST KNOW!) You certainly don’t end up with 1,000 new trees on your property, so in theory, most of those pinecones are failures.
But not all of them.
Failure is not the opposite of success; failure is part of your success. You have to keep failing, until your great idea or brilliant strategy hits. As Maddock says in his book, we should not seek failure, but we shouldn’t avoid it either. Because if you avoid it, it means you’re not trying. Remember, you can strike out thousands of times and still make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but you’ll never get anywhere near it if you stop swinging.
The Spanx Lesson
Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, is not only a billionaire; she is the youngest self-made woman on the Forbes Billionaires List. In a recent interview she talked about how her father taught her to take risks. Every day he would ask her, “How did you fail today?” This spirit stayed with her and fueled her passion, empowering her to take chances – and lots of ‘em – until she pulled off the big one.
Do you think Blakely would be sitting on the massive tummy-tuckin’, thigh-squeezin’ empire if her Dad hadn’t instilled the value of risk taking, of simply putting yourself out there every day, regardless of the outcome? I doubt it. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with thousands, millions of brilliant ideas that never took root because someone let their fear of failing kill the dream.
I’ve got a bit of Larry Walters and Sara Blakely in me and you do, too. Lord knows I’ve had my share of failures (perhaps that’s the part of me that is pine cone part of me), but I always get back up. More importantly, I always look at failure as an opportunity. I don’t just walk away from it and start over; I try to figure out how to make it work for me.
The Failure of "The Toilet Paper Guy"
My best successes have gained momentum off of my failures. If you were to look in my basement in early 2009, just a few months after the release of my first book, The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, you would have determined the book was a total failure. There sat rows and rows of boxes filled with books I had expected to sell in the first week of my launch.
I had this crazy notion that I would sell tens of thousands of books almost immediately, and since I didn’t want to run out, I ordered 25,000 copies of my book. I now know that most nonfiction books will not even sell 500 copies in their lifetime, and that my order was over the top, to say the least. (Actually, I’m not sure knowing that fact would have deterred me. I really believed my book would be an instant bestseller.)
When a few weeks after the September, 2008 launch I’d only sold a few hundred books, I was crushed. But the deepest part of the failure was when I received a bill from the Book Masters warehouse — $700 for one month of storage. Not only had I spent a fortune printing the books, now I had to cough up $700/month to keep living that failure over and over again.
I decided to truck the books to my house, leaving about 4,000 books at Book Masters as insurance policy (in case my house burned down, or I completely lost my mind and dumped all of the books in the river).
Painting Yourself Into A Corner
I’ll never forget the day the books arrived. A few buddies helped me unload over 400, 40-lb boxes – that’s eight TONS of books. By the end of the day, it was just me hauling the last hundred or so boxes. Box by box, step by step, I carried my failure into the house, down the steps, into my basement. My knees were aching beyond belief – it’s the most pain I’ve ever experienced – worse than any of my sports injuries from the VT lacrosse days. And it was, in my mind, the worst kind of failure: In ordering so many books, I had painted myself into a corner.
That day, after I stored the last box and sat down to ice my throbbing, nearly numb knees, I knew I had to move heaven and earth to get out from that corner.
Four years later, I only have a few boxes left. I’ve sold more than 30,000 copies (hardcover and digital combined) of The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, and every month is better than the last. I’ve used the book to connect with an amazing community of like-minded entrepreneurs, leverage insanely awesome opportunities, and have become a growing influence in the entrepreneurial community.
Would I have pulled off this level of success if I hadn’t been driven by my failure? Maybe not. So the risk that seemed like sheer stupidity two weeks after my initial launch turned out to be just the kick in the ass I needed to catapult myself into the life I envisioned.
What’s Your Next Failure
You never know which crazy idea or strategy will be the one that works, so you just have to keep trying, and failing, and trying, and failing, and then fail some more. Until one day, you have your own bestselling book or venture, or your feature in Forbes, or until you take flight. With every failure, you are one closer to success.
Tell me about your worst failure in the comments, and how you moved on from it, or turned it into a positive.