Every entrepreneur likes to win. In fact, winning at certain metrics, most obviously income and profitability, is what keeps you in the game.
But here’s the thing: Say you have a month where you’re losing. Even if you’re constantly growing and successful, you have times when you lose. It could be a particular project, an opportunity that didn’t pan out, or a breakdown in the system. And this generally, initially, is a very negative emotional experience. What happens then is that you’re faced with a decision about what you’re going to do with that negative emotion.
What I’ve seen is that the real winners know how to access a deeper level of winning. No matter what happens in their business, whether it appears to be a huge success or some kind of setback, it’s all learning.
What I mean by this is that some part of what you did worked, and some part didn’t, and you extract the full value from what worked and reinforce that by acknowledging what you did well. On the other hand, there were some things that didn’t work, and those are where you know you have to rethink, maybe go back to the drawing board. These are the opportunities to jump to a new level of skill and knowledge, a new approach and mindset. Both kinds of observations are learning, and the ability to think and respond this way consistently is a skill that differentiates the best entrepreneurs and gives them a tremendous advantage in freedom, confidence, and the ability to innovate.
The danger in never losing.
You might be tempted to think of this as some kind of a consolation prize—that if you have to lose, at least you can get some learning out of it.
My experience is that entrepreneurs who never lose are actually at a huge disadvantage because they often don’t have any insight into what they’re winning or why they’re winning, so when they eventually have a setback, they’re prone to being blindsided. They can get knocked completely out of the game. You see this a lot in certain industries that have experienced long periods of growth where the players didn’t have to do much except show up. It’s like a bear at a salmon run—you can swat anywhere and get a fish, and naturally everyone there thinks, “This is really easy. I don’t even have to think about it and my business just makes money for me!”
The problem is, when the setback comes, it’s devastating.
If they’re not learning from their successes as well as celebrating them, the danger is that entrepreneurs who have it too easy can end up on autopilot. They get complacent and sloppy and unaware of what’s really going on out in the world. When things shift, they don’t pick up on it. But the biggest danger is that, without the inclination to shift into learning mode, when a setback comes, they often become blamers. And the minute you start blaming, you’re a loser. Criticizing and complaining immediately cut off your ability to learn, because you’re giving away all your power to something outside yourself by making yourself a victim, and there’s no learning in victimhood. When you become an entrepreneur, one of the greatest mindsets you can assume is that, for the rest of your life, you’re going to give up blaming.
Here’s a different mindset to consider: No matter what happens to me, I’m taking 100 percent responsibility for it. I’m taking 100 percent responsibility for making the greatest use of our winning and 100 percent responsibility for our defeats and breakdowns, because that’s where all the learning is and I don’t want to give away any of my learning to the negative emotion of criticizing, complaining, or blaming.
Transforming negative experiences.
The thing about being blindsided is that it’s a shock to the system. I’ve noticed in myself that when things don’t work, I feel an adrenaline rush, and all of a sudden, I’m wide awake. After a while, I began to examine those situations and realize that although it was kind of painful, I had a lot of energy available in those moments. The skill is to be able to transform the negative energy of a breakdown into the creative energy of a breakthrough.
When I realized this for myself, I saw that everything I had interpreted as bad when it happened to me was actually a learning experience. And I realized that I’d squandered some of those opportunities to learn by moping around for a few weeks feeling sorry for myself. I said to myself, “You could have taken that and shifted it into some major new strategies or a new understanding of how the world works and instead you wasted a couple of weeks. You weren’t winning and you weren’t learning.” And that’s what I think it really means to be a loser.
Learn from what worked and what didn’t.
As an entrepreneur, you have the opportunity to say instead, “As painful and tough as this is, there’s a unique value in what’s happening to me right now, and my job is to take it from something that’s only happening on the inside of me and translate it into real new value creation outside of me.” A simple way to do this is to start by writing down a “negative” situation. Then create two columns. Write “Worked” at the top of one and “Didn’t Work” at the top of the other. Always start by filling in the “Worked” column because if you’ve taken a hit, your confidence is down a bit and you’ve got to show yourself that it wasn’t 100 percent bad. There are always some things that worked that you can point to and say, “That, we keep.”
Then you go over to the other column and you say, “But we have to improve here, and here. This has to get better, and this.” Now you’ve got insight and raw material for change, which gives you confidence and a basis for taking action to do some things better in the future, even if you’re never going to be in that exact situation again. The emotion from the experience becomes the fuel for positive progress.
It’s a unique skill, and it ultimately rewards you for your choice to be an entrepreneur. I’m really proud because I think that after more than 40 years of being a coach, I’ve gotten really, really good at this, and I do it almost instantaneously. It’s a real pleasure to be at the point in my entrepreneurial career where there’s no experience so bad that I can’t do something useful with it. There’s nothing now that can throw me so badly that within 24 hours, I haven’t switched into learning mode. I’ll say to myself, “Okay, we’re in a new phase here. The tide was going out, and now the tide is coming in, and I have to have different strategies and different approaches.” That’s a learning mindset, and I’m always amazed when I see it in my clients too, in the positive courage they convey when they come into a workshop and talk about setbacks this way and share what they’ve learned.
Winning or learning.
So, in the spectrum of entrepreneurial experience, I see two dials. One measures winning in terms of things like revenues, profits, market share, doors opening, and your credibility increasing. And when that dial is not registering positive, the other ticks up with the knowledge that we’re in the learning phase right now and that it’s going to generate just as many rewards through learning and growth, which will lead to much bigger numbers in the future. When you look at it this way, there’s nothing but winning and learning, and both are great.
This mindset around winning and learning is a basic requirement for being a game-changing entrepreneur. First of all, if you’re going to change your game, you have to own it, and the only way to do that is by taking 100 percent responsibility and knowing you can work with whatever comes your way. Second, you become more and more comfortable with the notion that the future is going to be surprising and unpredictable. Those who are fearful of losing play it safe and try to make the future predictable, which kills all possibility for game-changing breakthroughs. It’s a non-starter.
But if you internalize the notion that, regardless of what happens, you’re going to turn it into a creative breakthrough, you’re happy with surprises because you’ve developed the ability to turn any surprise, no matter what it is, into something better. Rather than worrying about what’s going to happen, you’re able to focus your energy on creatively responding to what is happening. With this ability, you can proceed fearlessly despite uncertainty, and that’s both tremendously freeing and a huge advantage to someone looking to discover, develop, and execute a game-changing idea.