3 stages of failure in life and how to overcome them

James Clear

Businessman, author of the book Atomic Habits. How to acquire good habits and get rid of bad ones.

One of the hardest things in life is knowing when to keep moving forward and when to stop.

On the one hand, perseverance and endurance are key success factors. Everyone who reaches the top in his business, once faced with doubts, but finds in himself the determination not to deviate from the path. Whether you want to build a successful business, have a successful marriage, or learn a new skill, persistence is an important quality to develop.

On the other hand, telling someone to “never give up” is terrible advice. Successful people give up all the time. If something doesn’t work, a smart person won’t repeat it over and over again. He will analyze the situation, adapt, find another way out, or abandon an unsuccessful idea. As the famous phrase goes, you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results – that’s crazy.

In life, one must be able to use both strategies. Sometimes it’s important to show unshakable confidence and redouble your efforts to move on. And sometimes it’s much wiser to give up what doesn’t work and try something new. But how do you know when to keep going and when to give up? I propose to answer this question with the concept of three stages of failure.

Stage 1: tactical failure

In 1984, Sam Carpenter became the owner of a small business. He spent $5,000 to buy a company that was in crisis. It was a service for doctors, veterinarians and other professionals who needed to answer the phone around the clock, but could not hire employees to do this. In making the deal, Carpenter hoped that one day his company would become the best help desk in the United States.

However, everything did not go according to plan. In a 2012 interview, Carpenter described the first decade and a half of work as follows: “For 15 years I worked 80-100 hours a week. Believe it or not, I also single-handedly raised two children. I was very sick, I was on antidepressants and so on … At one point I could not figure out the accounting in time and almost lost my company. Imagine the most terrible physical and emotional state and multiply it by ten – that’s how I felt. It was a terrible time.”

One night, when Carpenter was having trouble with his bookkeeping, he had a flash of light. He realized that the hardships of the company are associated with a complete lack of clear systems that are needed to achieve results. According to the entrepreneur, the employees did everything in the way that was best from their point of view, which is why all kinds of problems arose.

Carpenter realized that if he could streamline every process in the company, employees would follow the algorithms so they wouldn’t have to constantly put out fires. “For example, we have a nine-step procedure on how to answer the phone at the front desk. Everyone adheres to it, and it works perfectly. We made it automatic, which immediately improved the work, ”said the entrepreneur.

The businessman spent the next two years analyzing each work process. How to create a sales presentation, how to cash checks, how to work with customer accounts – Carpenter compiled a detailed guide in which any employee could find how to solve any problem in the company step by step.

What happened next? The businessman’s total work time has been reduced from 100 to about 10 hours per week. He no longer needed to solve all the problems on his own – the subordinates perfectly understood what was required of them. The quality of their work has improved, tariffs for services have increased, and profits have risen by 40%.

Now the company has been on the market for more than 30 years, and Carpenter himself works only 2 hours a week.

How to overcome

Tactical failure is errors in answering the “how” question. It occurs when we cannot build a reliable system, forget to monitor its performance and are too lazy to work out the details. It is the inability to implement a good plan and put a clear vision into practice.

Carpenter had a clear goal: to make his company the best help desk in the United States. The vision was also winning – at that moment, telephone services were in great demand. However, the entrepreneur did not know how to put all this into practice.

Create working systems

Tens of thousands of restaurants around the world operate under the McDonald’s brand. Why do they manage to constantly introduce new employees and not reduce the quality of the product? Because they have a clear system for each process.

Whether you’re running a business, raising kids, or managing your own life, creating a workflow that works will always lead to success. Take a cue from Carpenter – describe in detail each process on the way to the goal and follow the plan.

measure result

If something is truly important to you, measure it. Entrepreneurs find it helpful to keep track of how many business calls they make per day. For writers, analyze how often they publish new articles. Athletes – count the number of workouts. If you never measure results, you will not be able to evaluate the effectiveness of tactics.

Update tactics

The most annoying thing about tactical failures is that they never end. An approach that works perfectly now will one day become obsolete. And ways that are not suitable today may be the right decision in the future. Remember to constantly review and improve your workflow. Successful people often abandon an action plan that doesn’t align with their goal and strategy. Correcting tactical failures is not a one-time job, but a way of life.

Stage 2: strategic failure

It was March 1999. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced that he is launching Amazon Auctions, a service that will allow you to sell almost anything online. The idea was to create a project that would compete with eBay. Bezos understood that millions of people had things to sell, and he wanted them to make deals on Amazon.

Greg Linden, who worked as a software engineer at the time, recalled it this way: “It took a Herculean effort to implement the idea. People from various departments were relieved of the main tasks. The auction site with all eBay options and more was built from the ground up. Design, structure development, programming, testing and launch – everything took less than three months.

The Amazon auctions were a massive failure. Already six months after the launch, the management realized that the project was going nowhere. In September 1999, the new Amazon zShops feature was announced. Large companies and individuals were offered to create their own online store and sell products through Amazon. This attempt also ended in failure. Both projects have been closed for a long time. In 2014, Bezos, recalling them, said: “I made billions on the failures of Amazon.”

The company again tried to create a platform for sellers. In November 2000, the Amazon Marketplace opened, allowing users to sell their old items alongside new Amazon products. It worked. Fifteen years after launch, Amazon Marketplace deals accounted for nearly half of Amazon.com’s $107 billion in sales.

How to overcome

Here we are dealing with errors in the answer to the question “what”. They arise when we follow a strategy that does not give the desired result. We can know why we do something and how to do it, but still choose the wrong way.

Amazon had a clear vision to become the most customer-centric company on the planet. They were professionals in their field, which is why they managed to deploy an auction site in just three months. The questions “why” and “how” were solved. Problems arose with the question “what”.

Don’t hesitate

Some ideas have more potential than others, but you never know until you try them. No one can predict what will happen – not venture capitalists, not Amazon specialists, not your friends or relatives. All planning and all research is just a pretext. I like the approach of entrepreneur Paul Graham: “You don’t start working on your idea until you launch it.”

That is why it is important to immediately move on to action. The sooner you test your strategy in the real world, the sooner you get useful feedback. Look at Amazon – they launched auctions in March 1999, zShops in September of that year, and Marketplace in November 2000. Three serious attempts in less than two years.

Don’t spend a lot of money

When you reach a certain minimum level of quality in your business, try to test new strategies at a lower cost. In this case, you can test several ideas at once without spending a lot of money.

In addition, small investments will allow you not to become attached to the project. When you spend a lot of time and money on a certain strategy, it can be difficult to give up. The more energy you put into something, the more you consider it yours. Bad business ideas, toxic relationships, and destructive habits are hard to let go once they become part of the personality.

Modest funding will help avoid this trap and increase the chances that you will choose the idea that really works, and not the one that has been invested the most.

Fix bugs

Strategies exist to be reviewed and corrected. You are unlikely to find a successful businessman or artist who still does everything the way they did at the beginning of their career. Starbucks supplied coffee and espresso machines to other companies for more than 10 years before opening its own outlets. Nintendo made playing cards and vacuum cleaners until it won the hearts of video game fans around the world.

Too many entrepreneurs believe that if their first idea fails, then the business is not for them. Too many artists believe that if their early work is not recognized, then they are not talented enough. Too many people believe that if several of their relationships were unsuccessful, then they will never find true love again.

But what if nature acted on the same principle and made only one attempt? Then we would all be single-celled organisms. Fortunately, evolution doesn’t work that way. Over millions of years, life on Earth has adapted, evolved and rebuilt, until a huge number of very different species inhabiting it today appeared on our planet. Doing everything perfectly the first time is unnatural.

So if your original idea failed and you feel like you’re constantly revising and changing your original strategy, don’t beat yourself up. This is fine. This is how the world around us works.

Stage 3: failure of vision

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Massachusetts in 1803. His father was a pastor in a Unitarian church. It was then a relatively popular movement within Protestantism. Like his father, Ralph Emerson attended Harvard and became a pastor. Unlike his father, after several years of ministry, he realized that he did not agree with many church doctrines. He argued and communicated with the higher clergy for a long time, until in 1832 he decided to leave.

Emerson spent the next year in Europe. Travel spurred his imagination. He became friends with many philosophers and writers, including John Stuart Mill and William Wordsworth. A trip to Paris inspired him to switch from theology to science.

After returning to the US, Emerson founded the Transcendental Club. Its members were New England intellectuals like Emerson himself who wanted to debate philosophy, culture, science, and how to improve American society.

Emerson’s deep reflections on life and values, which began when he was a pastor, intensified when he traveled, and continued at meetings of the Transcendental Club, helped him understand that he wanted to be a philosopher and author. He devoted the rest of his years to writing essays and books that are still appreciated today.

How to overcome

The failure of seeing comes from an error in answering the “why” question. It occurs because your goal and your desire to become someone (your “why”) does not match your actions.

Assess your life

People rarely take the time to honestly analyze their vision and values. Of course, there is no rule that everyone should have a clear vision of their work or life. Many people prefer to go with the flow and be open to what life has to offer them. In theory, this is normal. But in practice, a problem arises: if you do not have your own vision of life, you will live in accordance with someone else’s.

Like many children, Emerson followed in his father’s footsteps: he was educated at the same university and was engaged in the same profession until he realized that he did not want this at all. Accepting someone else’s vision as your own, whether it’s the vision of family, friends, bosses, or society, is unlikely to lead you to the realization of your dream. Your personality and your habits simply won’t match.

Therefore, it is worth asking yourself important questions. What do you want to achieve? How do you want to spend your days? No one should do this work for you and clarify the vision for your life. Only you can do it. My advice is to start by learning about your core values and then reflect on the past year.

Formulate personal principles

These are internal settings that are not negotiable and from which you will not deviate under any circumstances. A common mistake is to turn principles into a strategy when they should be a vision. It’s very easy to get stuck on one idea. But if you really want to give something your full attention, let it be a vision, not an idea. Be firm when it comes to a general vision, not a particular case in the form of a specific idea. Jeff Bezos said: “We are stubborn in our vision. We are flexible in the details.”

The key is to understand that almost everything is the details: tactics, strategy, or even business model. If your principle is to become a successful entrepreneur, this can be done in many ways. Amazon’s philosophy was to be the most customer-focused company, and they lost billions on Amazon Auctions and zShops, but still hit the mark.

Once you are confident in your vision, you are unlikely to lose it. Only a few mistakes lead to the complete destruction of a dream. Most likely, we fail at the level of strategy and lose heart. This undermines our enthusiasm, and we give up – not because it needs to be done, but because we give in to feelings.

Our emotions turn the first or second stage of failure into the third. Most of the mistakes that appear to us as visionary failures are actually strategic failures. So many entrepreneurs and artists get fixated on a certain version of their idea, and when it fails miserably, they abandon their vision. However, there are many ways to turn your vision into reality. Do not focus on small details.

Learn to deal with criticism

It can be a useful indicator of failed strategies and tactics. But it is rarely an indication of a vision error. If you are determined to make your vision the principle factor in your life and not give up after the first try, you will have to learn to withstand criticism. No need to apologize for what you like, but you need to be able to adequately respond to haters.

I hope that the concept of the three stages of failure in life will help you understand your problems and solve them. You’ve probably already noticed how stages can disguise themselves as each other. For example, tactical failures can create such chaos that you feel like you are dealing with a failure of vision. Imagine how Sam Carpenter felt when he worked 100 hours a week. He could easily assume that his vision of “becoming an entrepreneur” was a mistake, even though the problem lay in tactics.

You may need to go through a few tactics to get the hang of strategy and vision. Or perhaps you are already on the right track, there is just so much dust around that it is difficult for you to notice the path you need to follow. Find competent tactics and strategy – the air will clear, and the vision will not keep you waiting.

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