“Failure is the key to success” has become such a common refrain that many choose to ignore it, choosing instead to wallow in defeat and never reach their full potential.
For entrepreneurs, it is the failure that most often dictates their success.
“There is something that connects every entrepreneur … and what that is is a willingness to accept failure and no,” explained Guy Raz, podcast creator, author and founder of Built-It Productions. “All of us are hardwired to avoid rejection; we don’t like it, and I think part of that is it’s a survival mechanism. You avoided danger, which is rejection, and that’s how you survived.”
Raz spoke with FreightWaves founder and CEO Craig Fuller for the opening keynote address for FreightWaves’ F3: Virtual Experience on Tuesday morning. Raz hosts the podcast, “How I Built This,” on which he speaks with founders to explore their journeys to success. He said that every founder he’s ever encountered has faced failure.
“In the modern age, you have to be willing to accept rejection in order to move forward,” he told Fuller. “One of the things I’ve noticed across the board with every single entrepreneur I’ve had on the show is they either have the ability to withstand rejection or they’ve developed it.”
Watch: Guy Raz keynote
Throughout the keynote, Raz recounted stories of the many entrepreneurs he’s met, but he always came back to a common theme.
“The story of founding a business is one of the most dramatic stories you can tell. It might sound weird to say that because when you think of a drama, you think of like ‘Star Wars,’ but what I recognized in founders’ stories about 15 years ago, and it really started 15 years ago even though I only started the show about six, was that when I read about founders, I saw the outline of a hero’s journey,” he said. “There’s a famous writer named Joseph Campbell that codified the idea of a hero’s journey back in the ’60s. His basic idea was that every great story has a similar narrative arc.”
The journey to success
For founders, that arc typically focuses on ideas, failure – sometimes many failures – and eventually success.
“Building a business includes incredible triumph and joy and incredible depths and low points and setbacks and moments when you think it is all going to collapse,” Raz said. “When I began to see those patterns in business stories, in founding stories, it became clear to me that I could tell those stories in a really dramatic way because they are real.”
He pointed to the typical journey, using a movie-like plot line to explain.
“There’s a hero and she is in a small village, and she has a crazy idea and the villagers tell her she is crazy so she has to leave the village,” Raz said, noting that along the way she experiences a series of trials and tribulations before finding her greatest success.
It is this journey that makes the entrepreneur.
“Part of the journey, imprinted in the journey, embedded in the journey, is failure,” Raz said. “Failure is part of the journey and when you begin to understand that, you begin to understand that you can actually see a horizon despite all the obstacles that are right in front of you.”
He cited the example of James Dyson, inventor of the bagless Dyson vacuum, who spent eight years and developed 5,714 prototypes of the vacuum, and when he felt he perfected it, he couldn’t find anyone to license it.
“He was obsessed with the idea of building a bagless vacuum cleaner and he pursued this despite hearing people tell him no one would buy it,” Raz said.
Dyson eventually manufactured the vacuum himself and it quickly became a global success story.
Finding our flaws
Raz said his podcast is trying to show that founder’s journey, and while the idea is to show people who have succeeded, their stories are almost invariably about the failures they have endured, and the flaws they have found in themselves.
“We are all flawed, and that is such an important point because I think we are living in a world right now, especially now, where we expect everybody to be perfect, and we expect everybody to have always been perfect, and the reality is that we are all flawed,” Raz said. “Even Mother Teresa, the most saintly people you can think of – [they] have flaws and we need to hear those flaws, we need to understand them, we need to understand people’s vulnerabilities because it makes us understand our own flaws and it makes us understand we can overcome them.”
Fuller asked Raz how the founders know when it was time to move on.
“When they wake up in the morning and it’s not the thing they want to do,” he said. “They might be inspired by certain things, but they might have lost some of it.”
Most move on to other endeavors, but for some, moving on proves more difficult.
“They regret it because they feel like they have lost a purpose,” Raz said. “Running a business or being part of a team. Going somewhere and showing up, interacting and exchanging ideas. Hearing other people’s ideas. The feedback. We grow. We become smarter. We ask questions. We read. We learn. It’s an intellectual pursuit even though we are not thinking about it that way.”
But most founders have an innate desire to create, Raz said, and that overrides the fear of failure.
“We all have to get more comfortable with failure,” he said. “We have to get comfortable with failure, because in my experience, there is not a single example of a business I’ve studied or a person I’ve interviewed who didn’t fail along the way.
“People who keep trying and failing eventually will find a version of success in some way,” Raz concluded. “The reality is that you kind of have to fail in order to understand how not to fail next time.”