“I could no longer say that I was my job, because I had none.  I couldn’t rely on my wealth to create a sense of worth and identity, for I had no money and loads of debt,” commented an entrepreneur whose company had gone bankrupt.

He continues:  “I could not look to social standing, for a failed entrepreneur has no social standing.  And the failure of my love relationship a month earlier ensured that I could not find myself through the love of another. I had nothing, therefore I was nothing. And I had died.” 

I had nothing.  Therefore I was nothing.  I had died.

Bracing words.  Born out of extreme difficulty.    

We all have some version of this story. Events or circumstances that rock us to our core.

And, out of this difficulty, we emerge better, stronger, and clearer.

“Until that point, I had lived my life through the eyes of other people…  My sense of identity and my feelings of self-worth were tied directly to the outer circumstances of my life—all of these external references were stripped away,” says the failed entrepreneur in Robert E. Quinn’s powerful book The Deep Change Field Guide

“When I looked in the mirror, I did not know who I was. For me, the ego-death and subsequent ‘rebirth’ was a wonderfully and powerfully transformative event. I experienced a sort of “awakening” in which I realized in a flash of insight that “I” was not my ego or the external trappings of my life. “I” was still all that “it” had ever been, my true self. Nothing that was real and certain had changed, just superficial aspects of my environment.”

What role does failure play in our lives?

Often, it is the catalyst for learning.  Extreme learning.

Early in my career, Publishing Concepts experienced a period of extended success.  When I joined PCI in 1995, revenues were around $3 Million.  Over the next six years, we more than tripled the size of the company to $10 Million.  Life was good.  Business seemed easy.

Until it wasn’t.  Revenue declined to $6 Million. That’s “white knuckle” time.  We had layoffs.  We struggled to make payroll.  Our bank balance was zero.  Literally.

It was one of the hardest periods of my life.  And it stayed this way for multiple years.  

Hard times.  Challenging times.

Prior to this challenging period, we had built a strong workplace culture.  PCI is a “culture-first company.”  Being a great place to work is our #1 business strategy.  Happy associates = Happy clients.  And, it’s terrific to have a great workplace culture when times are good.  

It’s during the hard times, though, that being a great place to work really matters.  I am convinced we would not have survived were it not for our engaged and committed group of associates.  We did not give up.  Ultimately, we persevered.  

And we got better.  

Way better.

Our “notthebigcompany” culture was born out of these hard times.  We clarified our purpose: We inspire dreams and transform lives.  Our values literally came to life off the posters around our office.  We developed a set of client promises which define how we do business today: Be proactive.  Be accountable.  Be positive.  Be passionate.  We put forth an inspiring vision:  To earn a place on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in the world. 

None of this would have happened had it not been for the dark, challenging period we experienced together.

There are two ways to learn.  We can learn from others by reading books, watching TED talks, or listening to wise people.

But there is an even better strategy to become a learning organization: pay attention to our mistakes.  When life becomes really, really difficult, and we say: I do not want to do that again so I’m going to do this

This is called learning.


Reflection: Reflect back on a truly challenging time in my life.  What did I learn from that experience?  How did it shape who I am today?

Action: Journal about the reflection above.

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