Fear & Failure
‘Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.’ Robert F. Kennedy
Last weekend I did the scariest thing I’ve done in my life. I spoke at TED. And I spoke about capitalism rather than saving the world (that doesn’t always go down well with a TED audience). To cap it all, Chris Anderson was in the audience watching! Just so you know how irrational I became the night before, I thought I heard someone breaking into my house at 3 am. My first thought wasn’t about jumping out of bed or calling the police. It was, ‘here’s a great excuse to evade speaking at TED!’ It was just some noise outside, nothing to worry about. Damn.
Throughout the whole week leading up to TED, two questions pounded around in my head. What am I so scared of? Why am I putting myself through this?
I think the answers represent an internal struggle that dictates most of my big decisions. Why run a massive music festival for youth suicide when I was at university? Why set up my own music company rather than take much more money working for someone else? After eight years, why did I throw in Scorpio – a successful, profitable company – to launch a start-up, and why did I spend my house deposit on the domain name! Two things drive me to be successful, fulfilled and miserable all at once. They propel me to take massive risks, then spend the rest of the time sweating to make things work.
These are my internal drivers. I’m not writing about them because I think they should be aspired to – it’s just something I’ve noticed about myself and the way I’m wired, and I wanted to write it down. I’m sure we all have aspects of these drivers at play; it’s interesting to consider what yours are, how they affect the decisions you make and the general happiness created by the outcomes.
Question 1: What am I afraid of? Answer: Failure!
I was terrified that I would mess up my TED talk, or that the audience would boo me off stage. Every day, I’m terrified that my company won’t work out. Fearing failure is natural and for me it’s vital. It makes me work hard to make sure that I don’t fail!
When I raised my first major round of Angel investment I was walking down the street after signing the documents at the law firm and I wondered, “Am I a good investment? Would I invest in me? I realised that, yes I think I’m a good investment. Because I know that, no matter what happens, I will refuse to fail. I also realised that I’m probably a much better person to invest in than I am to be! I know that I will fight with every last breath to ensure my company works.
I hate the ‘fail fast’ mantra that seems to be trendy for startups these days. Learn fast, yes. But when other people are investing, you must address challenges head on. When things don’t work, you must figure out a way to make them work. If I’d adopted a fail-fast attitude, Posse would have failed at least five times. The reason we’re still here is that I fear failing more than I fear death! When we succeed, it will be due to this refusal to fail.
I just finished reading Tony Blair’s autobiography. He spoke about how envious he is of people who can take risks with no fear of failure. I think these people are a myth: all responsible people fear failure. It’s just that for some people, like me, there’s one thing we fear more than failure.
Question 2: Why do I put myself through it? Answer: Because I don’t want to miss out!
Getting old and never having tried is the one thing I fear more than failure. Here’s how I prioritise fears. Failure is scary. Missing out on the opportunity is far more scary. If I never tried this, then I’d forever live with the regret of not knowing how it would go.
Jeff Bezos describes this idea eloquently when he talks about deciding to throw in his high-paying job to start Amazon.
I’ve recently been asked to speak at a couple of events around Sydney about leadership. I never considered myself a leader – I was always just someone with ideas who made them happen. During the talks, I was asked to give my leadership tips. My #1 leadership tip has been ‘Prioritize your fears’. If you’re mulling over starting a company or a not-for-profit, or if you’re toying with the idea of applying to speak at TED, then maybe you do fear failing more than you fear missing out. In that case, you’ll keep thinking about your idea forever and never do it. Fear will stop you.
But, for me, the thought of knowing that I never tried is much scarier.
p.s. I’m speaking more about failure at Failcon in Sydney on June 7