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Friday, March 5, 2021

3 Times I have Completely Failed

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As lawyers, we’re not very comfortable with failure.

There is, of course, a good reason for that.  For us, failure comes not only at the cost of ourselves and our pride and (potentially) our money, but it also can come at a great cost for others.

That said, there is a more insidious reason – it’s because we’ve been trained not to take risks.

In fact, beyond just not taking risks, we’ve been trained to avoid risk at all costs.

I find this bizarre, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.  Today I’m going to share some stories of failure.  It’s more common, of course, to share stories of success. And with many of the things I write and speak about, it would be easy to assume that I have never ending strings of success and perfection in my own practice.

But that’s simply not the case. I have failed over and over and over and over again.

Today I’m going to share 3 total failures with you.

The Pet Food Company

Many years ago now, I started a pet food business.

Well – I say “started” in the loosest possible terms.  I had a name, a logo (designed by myself – so you can imagine how that went), a bank account and I made a lot of phone calls to potential suppliers of stuff.

The idea was simple: provide a fresh food diet for animals that doesn’t smell like that odious rubbish you get in rolls, tins or packets and that actually met the nutritional requirements of the animals.

There was only one problem: I wasn’t actually that interested.

You see, I thought this one was a good money spinner – there was clearly a need, but the existing competitors were totally overpriced. I could do the thing, get the product, get some customers, then outsource it and make my fortune.

But I just didn’t care.

My heart wasn’t in it.

I wasn’t invested – I wasn’t all in.

This one fizzled before it really even began – my care factor was just too low.

Alas, I had to close the bank account, get rid of the stuff I registered, and ultimately had wasted a bunch of time.

The Furniture Builder

Technically I still build furniture.  Mostly tables and stuff like that, and usually because we have run out of spaces on which our children can put things (building a new table is, in fact, easier some days than getting a surface tidy for more than 4 minutes in a row).

But, a few  years ago, I decided that I could build furniture for a living.

Now let me tell you – there is a big difference between the casual approach to building furniture and the need to churn out work professionally day after day after day.

As it turns out, building nice furniture is even harder again.  You actually need some skills, some training, and ideally you need to have a clue what you are doing before you get going.

More importantly though, what I realised very quickly that if you want your children to be able to sleep you can’t run power tools underneath their bedrooms in the workshop that is 2 inches shorter than you are.

I also learned that my ability to replace my income with that which I could make from furniture was grossly overestimated.

So unlike the pet food business, my furniture venture had the passion – it just lacked the talent, the training, and the time.

I simply couldn’t execute on my grand plan.

So it failed.  Sure I sold a couple of things – but not enough.

I still build furniture, because I still enjoy it – but I build it for other reasons and it’s far more satisfying as a result.

The Angry Client

The first two examples were “failed venture” style, but of course what I write about here is not just risk taking, but about legal skills.

So I thought it would be helpful to share something on that front too.

Many years ago now, I inherited a file from someone who was going on leave.  I read the documents and basically understood what was going on.  Then a letter came in and got forwarded to me.  It had a fairly short deadline.

For reasons that I still don’t really understand, I decided not to action that immediately.  I didn’t bring it to the client’s attention, and I didn’t move on it as fast as I had to.

Then, when I “got around” to it (still within the deadline – just), I had to basically ask the client a tonne of questions and seek instructions on a huge pile of stuff – in a really short space of time.

That went down… very poorly.

In short: I had dropped the ball.

I had all of the feelings that you would probably expect about that episode. I felt useless, I felt guilty, I felt young and inexperienced (which was probably true). But for my debt and my family, I could have happily quit right there and then.

What’s the Point?

Faced with the million or so things that could go wrong on a daily basis, it would be pretty easy for me (and you) to just curl up in a ball and huddle in the foetal position hoping that nothing would go wrong.

But that’s not what you’re called to, and it’s not what I’m called to. You need to embrace the possibility that, in every step you take, things might go wrong. Only once you do that and are comfortable with it, can you decide to press on regardless.

  • You WILL stuff something up.
  • You WILL get rejected in a job application.
  • You WILL give someone bad advice.
  • You WILL fail to spot an issue.

Your job is not to hide away from the possibility of failure, but rather to understand the fear that is holding you back.

So often our decisions in our legal careers are based on fear.  Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t put your hand up, don’t stand out, don’t take a risk, don’t say this thing.  It’s all based around fear.

What’s your worst stuff up? What keeps you up at night? How can you move past these barriers that have been trained into you over many years?

For now – I’m off to build some furniture…

Happy Lawyering!

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