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I was devastated. I had spent six weeks promoting one of my company’s first ever events, and needed to sell at least twelve tickets to break even. Despite pouring my heart, soul and every spare minute I had into marketing the event, with a week to go, I had only sold six tickets. I was having major doubts whether my business was going to be viable going forward.
Then, with two days to go, the ticket sales started to roll in; 7, 8, 9, 12, and on the day before, I reached 17. I was profitable! Things were looking up. I could hardly contain my excitement as I signed people in to the event that morning. After registering, attendees grabbed a cup of coffee and took their seats in the classroom. We were due to start at 10am.
As 10am drew nearer, I became concerned that there was no sign of the course leader. I tried calling a few times – no answer. Sent a text – no reply. The clock hit 10. Then 10.05. Then 10.15. He never showed.
I walked into the room, explained what had happened, and proceeded to refund every single penny in revenue I had spent six weeks working to generate. Later, the course leader called me and told me he’d made a ‘scheduling error’. To date, this was my biggest setback in business, and in this post, I’ll share three ideas that helped me get through it.
1. Experience is Raw Material
Years before, I had read Victor Frankl’s: ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was imprisoned in Nazi Concentration Camps during World War Two. One of his key insights was that it is our responsibility to determine what experiences mean to us. Having read Frankl’s work, I realised it was now my choice to decide what the setback meant to me.
On one hand, I could take it as a sign that maybe I’m not cut out for entrepreneurship and I should just give up the dream, be realistic and get a ‘real job’. On the other, I could use it as fuel. I could see it as an opportunity to develop resilience in overcoming adversity. If I could come back from this, then I’d become the kind of person that is able to land on his feet; no matter what life throws at him.
Both interpretations were potentially true. But I realised that the actions I took from then on in, would determine which future would materialise.
2. The Circle of Influence
Steven Covey was an American educator and author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. One of his core ideas is that there are two areas where you can spend your time and energy: The circle of influence and the circle of concern.
The circle of influence contains everything that is directly within your control. E.g. Your health, relationships, the amount of effort you put in, etc. The circle of concern contains things you have no direct control over. E.g. The weather, other peoples’ opinions, nuclear war, etc.
Proactive people spend most of their time in the circle of influence. Reactive people spend their time in the circle of concern.
When the setback happened, I realised I had a choice about what to focus on. On one hand, I could spend it in the circle of concern; thinking about how I’d been screwed over, blaming the course leader, and worrying that my business was going to fail.
On the other, I could spend it in the circle of influence. I could focus on what I now had control over; refunding attendees, scheduling a new date, getting a new venue, and arranging more courses. I opted for the latter. We re-ran the course two weeks later and made a profit overall.
3. Extreme Ownership
Extreme ownership is an idea from Jocko Willink. It involves taking as much responsibility as possible for the negative things that happen in your life. If something goes wrong, you ask: ‘In what way did I contribute to the negative outcome that occurred?’
You then take ownership of it, identify where you screwed up, and do your best to ensure history doesn’t repeat. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to only want to see the good in ourselves. We really want to see ourselves in a positive light.
If something challenges this, we feel threatened, insecure, and look to put the blame elsewhere. In my case, my brain went into blame-overdrive. But I knew if I was going to make sure it didn’t happen again, I needed to figure out what part I had played in the outcome, and take action to prevent it happening again in the future.
When I reflected, I realised my communication had let me down. If I had effectively communicated with the course leader leading up to the event, the situation would never have happened as it did. Since, I’ve now developed a system where I email clear information about the date, timing and location to speakers six days before my events.
Extreme ownership allowed me to learn from my mistake and put systems in place to ensure it never happens again. As a result, I have a better, and less risky business. Had I simply blamed the course leader, then I’d be vulnerable to the same mistake in the future. Worse still, all the pain I went through would have been for nothing.
No matter what you do, life is going to throw problems at you. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. The goal then, shouldn’t be a life free of problems and adversity. But rather, it should be to become the kind of person who can overcome them. As John Kabat-Zinn said: ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’
Realising that it’s your choice what meaning you give to any situation, spending your time in the circle of influence, and taking extreme ownership, are three powerful ways to do this.