Tell me your stories of failure.
April 2, 2010 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Did you take a risk and fail? How did it turn out?

After a long, frustrating job search, I am now starting to seriously think about trying to make a go of it doing independent work in my field. I'm fairly young, but I have a diversity of work experiences, I've done some of the type of consulting I'm looking to get into, and I have a Master's degree. Perhaps this is not a completely crazy idea, but I am pretty risk averse and it scares the bejeezus out of me.

I have heard enough tales about how Joe Schmo took a chance on his dream and *voila!* it led to crazy success, riches, and happiness. I'm guessing this is not the norm. So, I want to hear your stories of failure. Did you take a real risk that didn't turn out how you planned? At all? Why didn't it work? What did you learn? Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?

Help me explore/confront my fear of failure!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I took a job, moved across the country and bought a house. Job was not anything like what I expected, and I got the hell out as soon as I could. Knowing what I know now, I'd be a hell of a lot more cautious about making a firm commitment when moving. I was a bit naive about my approach, really. On the other hand, I'd never done it before, so there's only one way to learn, right? Had it worked, it would have been a smart move. Aside from the single year I spent in that miserable spot, the house is the only negative left hanging over my head. It sucked, but it didn't ruin my life, and now I know that I can successfully deal with a negative situation.

The thing I learned from it all is this: Taking zero risks is not a good way to live. Having had it go bad on me one time was difficult, but in retrospect I learned a lot about myself, and what I really wanted out of my life. Had I not taken the risk, I wouldn't be where I am now, and where I am now is pretty darn good. The road here could have been smoother but I still made it.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:42 AM on April 2, 2010

here are some links that might be what you're looking for:
Top 10 dot-com flops
My Failed Business Ideas Might Make You Rich!
9 Businesses I Started Which Utterly Failed

that being said, analyze the risks, maybe askMetaFilter your ideas, and then if you're ok with the outlook go for it.
posted by pyro979 at 7:51 AM on April 2, 2010

I took a risk and failed... but still came out the better for it.

After college, I got a job doing art direction for websites. It was fun, it paid well, etc. In the wake of the dotcom bust, however, I was one of the multitudes who found myself laid off and scrabbling for work. Getting contract work wasn't terribly difficult, and I managed to keep afloat, but I also began to wonder what I would rather be doing.

Freelancing affords a lot of schedule flexibility. So... I decided to go back to school and maybe pursue medicine. I was never much of a science or math person when I was initially in college, so I had a lot of prerequisites to take. Chemistry 1 and 2, organic chemistry 1 and 2, physics 1 and 2, biology 1 and 2, parasitology, microbiology, immunology, virology... I took all those classes, and got a straight 4.0 on all of them.

I studied for my MCAT for...shoot...8 months? I was studying for it concurrently with taking classes, and let me tell you - it's hard to study for test on subject matter you haven't learned yet. I completed practice test after practice test, and in the end, I scored in the 96th percentile. Go, me!

With nearly 60 hours of 4.0 prerequisite course work, a summer spent working as an ER tech, hours logged shadowing in labor and delivery at a major county hospital, and a 96th percentile MCAT, I thought I would be a shoe-in for a good medical school, despite being a bit older than the traditional applicant (I was 28 at the time).

That turned out to not be the case. The application process does not consider the GPA of any undergraduate credits earned after graduation...and well...when I was younger, I was a slacker going into design. I had graduated in good standing... but had nowhere near the GPA to be competitive for medical school application without the help of my more recent course work.

In the end, I didn't even make it past the automated filter for three years running. I have to admit that I was a bit crushed. It still seems like a broken system, and I am still bitter about it.

After all of that, however... I learned a lot about myself. I have a lot more confidence now in my abilities to see difficult tasks through. I have more confidence in my own smarts. That doesn't *sound* like much, I know... but it impacts my every day life in profound ways, even several years after the fact.
posted by kaseijin at 7:53 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

So, not sure if this is totally relevant, but I took a big risk on some research when I was a grad student that totally failed, and I got kicked out of the program for lack of data.

That sounds bad, right?

Well, it turns out to be one of the better things that's happened to me. Since the research was so grueling and hard to do, I learned tons of good habits and behaviors that are really helping me out right now. It really was an incomparable growing experience as far as how much I changed and improved in such a short period of time. Currently, I'm enrolled in another program and I expect the whole thing to have set me back maybe 4 years. Considering the benefits that I got, this seems totally worth it even though I didn't get what I was initially looking for.

I think trying to go independent is an excellent idea, especially if you're very self-motivated. You will gain way more higher-level experience in terms of directing a business and understanding what makes things work than you would taking a job under someone else. Even if you ultimately don't succeed, the skills that you'll acquire will serve you quite well in whatever you choose to do next.
posted by scrutiny at 7:56 AM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have always had a dream of packing up, moving somewhere far away, and starting life in a new city with new friends and new experiences. I've had the chance to do so twice, and both times were fantastic, utter failures.

Both of these opportunities came in the form of a move from Boston (my home town) to cities in California (San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively). One was for a sales position in a publishing firm I worked at, and the other was a consulting gig with a giant consulting firm. The first time was in the early 1990s, and the second was about three years ago.

Both times, I was wracked with homesickness, found I didn't make friends or even attempt to make friends without the social buffer of people I already knew, I didn't go exploring in my new environments much at all (I would go to work, come home, fire up the TV and eat dinner alone on the couch most nights), and felt incredibly depressed all the time.

The relief I felt upon leaving these situations made me feel like a complete and utter failure, but I eventually grew to realize that I'm someone who has really deep, strong roots that are connected to my family, my local friends, and my home town. That's something a lot of people in this world don't have, and now I celebrate it rather than fight it.

I have a ton of friends all over the world, and I love visiting them, even for extended periods of time, but I always know where "home" is for me, and learning that was worth the pain.
posted by xingcat at 8:01 AM on April 2, 2010

I took a risk and moved across the country to where I knew nobody but did have a job offer. I had some wonderful years full of adventure and discovery. Then the company folded, the job market imploded and I ended up going through most of my savings and moving back to the east coast.

Was that a failure or success? Certainly I wouldn't have planned the ending that way, but that chapter of my life holds some of my most important experiences. The point being, there is a fuzzy line around a lot of these things and very few pure "voila" moments. It sounds like you have an idea and some enthusiasm, so go for it.
posted by mikepop at 8:04 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

A big, but not imprudent, risk that I took still ended up with good results, despite not succeeding directly.

I left a secure job to co-found a (very much) Web 1.0 start-up in 1999 which was premised on a big VC round in mid-2000 -- what turned out to be perfectly bad timing. (And I'm not convinced we would have succeeded even with that funding.)

It worked out well for me because:

(1) I had a fall-back: in my case, a top 10 law degree and the willingness to go back to a corporate law firm if I had to (which is indeed, what I did), and

(2) that year-odd period of fast-moving contract negotiation, financial modeling, selling, and planning (even under the rather unusual conditions of the dot-com bubble and its burst) gave me a skill-set and appetite for the business side I used a couple of years later to migrate into the fixed income business on Wall Street, something I am 100% certain I could not have done otherwise. I believe that I far happier and more successful with my work than I would have been had I never taken the risk in the first place, despite the costs.

Here's my coaching on risk.

* Make sure that the reward is worth it. If this is about a career, your "reward" should be building a scalable business or marketable professional brand with very high financial potential, or some high-rank or profile that is money-equivalent to you. One thing that I see too often -- and that is sure to end in tears -- is people giving up a fairly safe career that culminates in earnings in the $500k to $1MM range to pursue pipe-dream businesses lucky to generated $100k for their proprietors, and more likely to end in ignominy.

* Have bridges first, and don't burn them, either. Chances are you are going to have to go back over them, but even if you don't, it sure makes you feel better to have the degrees, friends, family, and/or resume points that assure you that failure won't leave you on the street. You actually are better at making bold moves when you don't have to be total fear as you do so.

* Be rational about changing direction within your dream. I am thinking now of two close friends who turned their back early on corporate law / finance / etc. careers and are now insanely (one) and merely spectacularly (the other) successful. For each of them, the key was to make a big conceptual move within the pursuit of doing things their own way, in order to pursue and tap an opportunity they hadn't initially perceived.
posted by MattD at 8:09 AM on April 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

The January 2010 issue of Wired was dedicated to failure. Maybe some of the stories will help?
posted by General Malaise at 8:17 AM on April 2, 2010

Someone I used to date shared this nugget with me:

The Kennedy Principle.

Arguably the Kennedy family has had an amazing run of both good and bad fortune. No other family in American history seems as storied for their successes, nor as haunted for their failures and tragedies.

So ask yourself: Would you trade places with one of the Kennedy clan? If yes, take the risk. If no, play it safe.
posted by FlamingBore at 8:20 AM on April 2, 2010

When I graduated college I immediately moved 70 miles away from the area to take a job I wasn't really sure I wanted. For many reasons, this was very stupid of me. I had gotten the job with the help of some connections, so I felt like I couldn't turn it down -- especially since it seemed like it was the most logical way to start my career. But it ended up being a total disaster and sent me into a pretty severe depression. I eventually found a job in another area, one that was so far from my original location in college that I never, ever would've considered it had I not moved elsewhere for the crappy job. Now, life is better in pretty much all respects, so even though the crappy job was a real downer at the time, it was the perfect stepping stone to get me to where I needed to be.
posted by phatkitten at 8:46 AM on April 2, 2010

8 years ago I, along with some partners, embarked on my own "American Dream", starting my own business in the technology field I had worked in for a number of years. In my head, of course, the end game was selling the company for millions upon millions of dollars and being set for life financially. Instead, we are currently in the process of closing the doors, having been a victim of the bad economy here in California as well as some other bad breaks that hit within the past year or so.

While obviously not an ideal ending for me, I don't regret having taken the chance because it allowed me to leapfrog over some professional hurdles that I can't imagine having been able to overcome in the same time frame otherwise. Being a business owner allowed me to take on responsibilities beyond my experience (in other words, if I had kept working for other people I seriously doubt I would have ever been given the same level of responsibility at the same point in my career), so when it was time for me to start looking for another job my resume was far stronger than it would have been otherwise, and I was able to land a managerial position with a well-established company in my field.

While I can't lie and say that I don't spend at least some amount of time going over the past year in my head and imagining ways in which we could have done this or that thing differently to avoid what happened, I'm not ashamed for having taken the chance and failed. Personally and professionally I'm better off today for having taken the risk
posted by The Gooch at 9:41 AM on April 2, 2010

My own personal guidelines have been:

- Don't risk death
- Don't risk permanent, disabling injury
- Don't risk a jail term
- Don't risk having and raising a child you don't want

For most people, any risk that doesn't involve bodily harm, personal freedom, or an unwanted child is one that they are able to recover from, even if it took a few years for them to get back on their feet.

As for myself, I risked removing myself from the work pool and taking out a lot of student loans to get a master's in a field that I love. It seems to be paying off - slowly than I'd like because of the current economy, but I fully expect things to pick up soon - and I love what I'm doing now much more than I did before.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:11 AM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have heard enough tales about how Joe Schmo took a chance on his dream and *voila!* it led to crazy success, riches, and happiness. I'm guessing this is not the norm.

You're right, it's not the norm. It's survivorship bias.

I pursued a career dream and what I regret is not having known myself better. I don't know how I really could have gotten around it as I simply wasn't mature enough and didn't know what my experience in the working world would be or how I would change or who I was for that matter, but I still wish that I'd done things differently, even if realistically I wouldn't have.
posted by anniecat at 10:56 AM on April 2, 2010

The key to risk-taking is pretty simple: limit your risk to things that will hurt to lose, but not impact your life permanently, or other people's lives negatively.

To that end, Rosie's list above is very helpful. Death and children are permanent, as are a history of being a criminal. Losing an arm in a car accident is permanent, and so is causing a pedestrian or other driver to lose an arm. You get the idea.

When it comes to money, and relationships, and fame, you're generally losing something that can be replaced in the future, or not getting something that you're reaching for. Those kind of risks are generally worth taking, provided you don't break the rules. Can you spend your life's savings starting a business? Yes, if you are your only dependent, but if you have a spouse and/or kids, you should probably leave a certain amount of financial cushion. Can you quit your day job and tour with a band? Same rules.

Ultimately a life without risk can be satisfying, but only if you've already gotten the things you want. If you haven't, and you can only get them with a certain amount of risk, just manage the risk and you'll be fine.

An example: I had some spare money that I wanted to invest in the stock market, something I've never done. I waited until I had enough money banked to support myself and my family for six months if I lost my job, then entered the market with additional funds. It so happened that it paid off, and gave me enough of a cushion in the market to allow further investment -- but again, without touching the six month cushion. However, if my gains more or less hold until January of 2011, I'll have a full year's cushion against unemployment, from an investment that would only have been worth 2 months initially. You can imagine that having a full year's cushion against unemployment enables other risks with potentially greater rewards.

Finally: yes, for every crazy success story, a lot of people have failed and you'll never hear about it. The important thing is that you take the risk in a way that doesn't jeopardize your options for potential success in the future if you fail the first time -- and in a way that doesn't demoralize you and prevent you from trying again later.
posted by davejay at 12:01 PM on April 2, 2010

I went back to graduate school in my 30's and started a whole new career. Fortunately, I didn't know how difficult it would be when I started! I managed it with the 1000% support of my hubby and hours and hours of hard work. It's turned out OK.

Then, the hubby and I took on the challenge of funding and marketing his invention. And, we were in our 40's when we took this risk - perhaps not the best timing - but when the creation evolves, you have to follow it... After 6 years we were finally getting a bit of headway into the market place. The hours were relentless and the stress was high since we funded everything ourselves based on living off my full-time job. I worked nights and weekends at our business and he put in the 24-7 making it happen. The satisfaction in seeing his creation being so well-received and his abilities gain high praised has been priceless. The financial stress and uncertainty were considered part of the package.

Even though I could not keep the thing going after he became critically ill and did not survive - I don't regret having risked so much of our future. I may eventually get back out of the financial hole and am so happy that we never had to look back and regret not having tried. I am so proud of his/our accomplishment and only regret not being able to make a go of it on my own.

The big question is: Why not; not, How not.
posted by mightshould at 3:16 PM on April 2, 2010

It may not be the norm that Joe Schmo took a chance on his dream and achieved crazy success, but at least more common that Joe Schmo took multiple chances on his dream, learned some valuable lessons from each misstep, and eventually achieved satisfactory success. Don't be afraid to fail. Some of your greatest periods of growth could be inspired by failure.

Here are a few encouraging quotes:

"Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Samuel Beckett

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” - Winston Churchill

"Don't be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
posted by Ryogen at 10:07 PM on April 2, 2010

Most of 2008 was like this for me - I wanted to be a KaosPilot and failed miserably. If you needed a strong example for how the Law of Attraction doesn't work, use me. (Well, I didn't rely solely on that, but it did put to lie the notion that if you put all your effort into it you'll definitely succeed).

I was bummed out for the rest of the year, facing depression, relationship issues, and not knowing which country I was going to be in let alone what I was going to do with myself. (There were a couple of other issues too that made it worse.) I did go through a period of feeling dead inside, of not having any point to living.

What helped was the opportunity to perform in the Vagina Monologues, which then led to a strong interest in performing. It hasn't always been easy, but the past couple of years have been very exciting, fulfilling, and full of fun. The attempt with the KaosPilots gave me the motivation to just apply for whatever and see what happens - which has led to some interesting opportunities. But mostly I just stumbled along, and saw what happens.
posted by divabat at 12:41 AM on April 3, 2010

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