The Art of Striving

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How you can turn failure around to act as a vehicle for ambition – and even success.

By Sherisse Hawkins (Co-founder & CEO, Beneath The Ink)

When I was in the 8th or 9th grade, like most girls my age, I kept a diary. It contained all the stuff that fills the head and hearts of someone too old to be considered a child, too young to understand what it means to be an adult, and too confused to make sense of the world in real time. This confusion was precisely what made keeping a diary so handy; I learned then that writing gives you distance, perspective, and pause.

The diary featured thoughts, rants, doodles and poems. Looking back, I have especially fond memories of the poems. While I don’t remember any of them in their entirety, there is a line from one poem that has never faded:

‘Striving spills from my failure’

What I could not have known then is what a fantastic life motto this would become, and how incredibly important this mindset would be throughout my career as a technologist, my role as CEO of a tech startup, and my aspirations as leader.

Failure Happens

Life is full of failures; here is what some of mine sounded like.

  • Damn! 1st semester calculus just kicked me to the curb.
  • Ouch! You better pay more attention when you’re measuring the voltage on that bus bar.
  • Sigh, the interview could have gone better.
  • Argh! “Corporate” has cancelled the project but “you” have to let everyone go.
  • ^$^%@!!!! That investor turned us down.

All of these were failures, big failures; however, each of them was merely an invitation to strive.

What I suspected, but didn’t fully realize until I started my own company, was how striving affects product development.

The product I’m proud to work on today exists for only one of two reasons:

1) We were visionaries or

2) We were too “foolish” to stop striving, and therefore focused on building what people told us they wished they had.

That striving went on for a LONG time – frankly it was long enough that if someone had told me the total amount of time to achieve success I’m not completely certain I would have begun the journey.

Striving that hard for that long is exhausting, painful, aggravating, thankless, demoralizing and sanity testing. We were attempting to build something we knew the world would enjoy: something that would delight, engage, and connect people, and make people happy.

Permit me a slight tangent here; some say engineering is only worthy when spent on building something that people can’t live without. I can only smile at this. Yes, we need fuel-efficient cars. Of course, I want to wipe out cancer from the face of the planet. However, the list of things I can’t live without is pretty damn short: food, water, oxygen, and shelter, so if my gravestone says, “She helped create things that made people happy,” I’m good with that.

Moving Forward

Perhaps the striving that spills from each failure and naysayer actually propels one forward.

Maybe failures are the raw fuel, the pure energy, which feeds the process of creating something new.

That is not how I would have described the situation at the time.

It’s not fun to take a close look at our failures, wallow in them, talk about the, or to analyze them. But, if you dare to do so the results can be more powerful and effective than you would ever imagine. Instead of just asking, “What did that failure teach me?” investigate how those events propelled you.

Remember how writing provides distance, perspective and pause?

Dare to write your failures down. Once you reflect on the words you will see that failure IS learning, that failure IS fuel and it’s a very key part of making forward progress.

Then, in the magic moment when all the striving pays off, (like when we sat stunned and staring at our working product and wondering if it was really real… or later when when it was clear that what we created did indeed make people happy) the concept of failure dissipates – immediately and completely.

In case you were wondering, I still have a diary.

I’m an adult now so I call it a personal blog. It’s filled with thoughts and rants, far fewer doodles, and not enough poems.

Have You Found Success In What You First Perceived As Failure?

sherisseAbout the guest blogger: Prior to founding Beneath the Ink, Sherisse held a VP engineering position at Time Warner Cable. She has been recognized as Women of the Year in Technology by the Rocky Mountain chapter of WIC, is a Betsey Magness Leadership Fellow (Class XIV), and has served on the board of several non-profits organizations.