The art of making mistakes (part 19)

Help me by Anthony Epes

Help me by Anthony Epes

At least 20% of businesses go out of business in the first year. A further 50% of businesses go out of business within five years. Why does this happen? The obvious one is money (not made enough, spent too much, business not viable) but I think an equally significant reason is that it is so so so bloody hard getting a business started and keeping it running as you fight to establish the business and yourself. Everyone will hit a wall along the way and start to wonder things like – if I gouge out my eye might it help to relieve the pressure I am squashed under?

I’ve hit a few walls of late, hard.

Last year was amazing. Lots of successes; we launched our books! We raised almost £11,000 on Kickstarter! We had a sell out run of London workshops! We got more commercial clients! We had two exhibitions! The documentary being made about us is almost finished! But is this what I think about when I lay in bed at night? Noooooooooooo.

We made some mistakes. One big enough to financially echo into this year, but not big enough to sink us (just). It’s really easy to get derailed by your fuck ups. To ponder, ruminate; probe that dark place in you that tells you I knew you couldn’t do this. I knew you were worthless. WHO do you think you are anyway? I am very familiar with that dark place and doing hard things means that dark place stays close, ready to swallow you whole if you step out of line.

So what has kept me sane?

I could say – oh all the good stuff, the successes – the book sales or responses from people who love our work or the acknowledgement of our legitimacy in the form of press. Or perhaps my beautiful kids. Their cute little faces, their total love of me in spite of my inadequacies.

But I’d be lying. My brain doesn’t work like that. So here is what has kept me going.

Don’t waste the mistake

There is lots of talk right now about failure, and how we as a culture need to get more comfortable with it. Because don’t lots of really successful business people say that failure is a necessity on the pathway to success? It may sound like they are just saying that to make us non- successful minions feel better about our lives – but it’s actually true. When you can get past the stinging humiliation of making a mistake, there is actually some really interesting stuff to poke around in and learn from. Once we stopped feeling sick, Anthony and I discovered that this ‘poor choice’ actually helped to bring our vision of the company together. I hadn’t realised that we were on slightly different paths; our goals were almost the same but not completely, and that was creating friction.

Sharing and connecting

It’s easy to live in a bubble when things are going well, but when you have problems in your business it’s vital to get out there and meet other entrepreneurs/crazy people. Only they can really understand what you’re going through and are more likely to be able to help (like how only another parent can get the proper craziness of being a parent). It’s easy to think that everyone is doing/has done really well. It’s easy to take mistakes as a personal failing. But when you talk to other business owners, everyone will have a list as long as your arm of things they fucked up. And for me that is comforting.

Remember you’re still here

Seth Godin’s blog is one of my useful resources for advice. Sometimes I feel he is reading my mind when he churns out his advice about starting businesses, being an artist and marketing among other things. He has had a bunch of business failures, and failures along the way to successful businesses. But he said that he didn’t mind because after each one he was still here, he still got to play and so it wasn’t a real failure.

It’s really easy to think everyone is doing really well and never struggling. I love this post from Marie Brophy which reminds me that we are all feeling inadequate.

Don’t take it personally  

This reminds me of the Tolstoy quote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think it’s the same with mistakes. You are most likely to be objective with other people’s mistakes, but with your own they seem so ridiculous and worse than anyone else could do. When I find it really difficult to be objective about things I’ve fucked up, I imagine my best friend or my son telling me that they had done it, instead of me. When it comes out of the mouth of people I love I find it so much easier to see it for what it is. And, in general, getting emotionally involved in your business is a pathway to hell, so practising emotional distance is ALWAYS useful.

Remember that why you are doing this is bigger than the mistake

I want this to be successful more than anything I’ve wanted before. The success of this is not just a win for me; it’s a win for my whole family. It’s us being together, it’s me not working full time but still having a ‘good job’, it’s seeing my husband’s beautiful talent spread far and wide and giving people something special. I want this with all of my heart and that is why I persist when the going gets tough. When we make mistakes, when my husband’s persistent annoyingness makes me want to remove his vital organs, when I feel ill or disheartened, I remember why I am here and it keeps me going.