The Right Side Of Failure

Updated: Nov 30 2002, 05:30am hrs
Hands up everyone whos gone through some sort of, shhhh, failure Been fired, lost your job, got laid off On the verge of being downsized Rightsized Gone are the days of lifetime security: when you joined a company at age 20 and retired several decades later with a gold watch and all the good folks from work dancing in your sons baraat.

All that changed in the last decade, mostly in the last five years. If theres a current defining image, its that of a loaded corporate gun: it can go off any time and anyone can be the target. The free fall has left hundreds of corpses in its wake and terrible workplace insecurities. Everywhere you look people seem to be going through some very hard times: Business gone bust. Orders cancelled. Sales figures heading South. Dot Gones lying around everywhere, unemployed. All the rules have changed and no one knows their lines anymore.

Of all forms of failure, researchers say getting fired is probably the most painful since it involves the loss of three critical things: self-esteem, money and status. And since its done to you, it can leave you feeling very helpless and out of control. Take the case of Jatin, a senior manager, who got a job with a large Asian multinational with a posting in Kuala Lumpur and a very juicy salary. He was sent off after a round of farewell parties by envious colleagues. A year-and-a-half later, he got downsized and is back in India. Since then, with no other job offer, hes been trying to run his own business. He put all his savings into it but it never took off. To salvage that, he took loans from banks but those have disappeared too. What started as a dream job has become a debt sentence.

Jatin has become a bitter, cynical man his self-confidence lying in the bottom drawer of his desk, along with a pack of Crocin. He spends his day doing nothing but is too ashamed to market himself: Him, having to go around ask for work Instead, he stuffs his feelings which then sneak out in other ways: anger, irritability, self-pity. The cruelest cut is that his 25-year-old daughter is bringing home more money than him.

True, he can see that there are many other people in the same boat on the same choppy seas. But just because there are others, doesnt make failure any easier to deal with. Most of our programming since childhood has been for success how then do we, gulp, utter such terrible words like: Ive been fired. My business flopped. The inability to talk about it is part of the problem. When we stuff our feelings, we stay stuck. The dirty little secret becomes a noose around the neck. When researchers Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb went about interviewing people for their insightful book When Smart People Fail, they found: A secret army of men and women who had failed, each thinking he or she was the only one. To our astonishment, we discovered in almost every case they had never talked about it to anyone else.

Time to wake up and smell the newsprint. Failure just isnt the big deal it once was. So many people have been shown the door, its become as common as pizza in India. Indeed, the dotcom days made it almost respectful to fail, with CEOs of technology companies even today insisting that you should have had a couple of failures in your track record. Its no accident that the Harvard Business School spends so much time studying unsuccessful companies theres more gold to dig out there.

If job loss does happen to you, best to air it, share it and move on. I cant help but admire this woman who attends a class with me and works in an American company where she gets an obscene salary. Last week, she turned up fuming and loudly announced: They fired me, the b******s. All evening she grumbled, groaned, vented. And then, having got it out of her system, she did the next thing: went out for dinner with friends. And called the headhunters in the morning.

Failure follows the fairly predictable timetable of most life crises shock, denial, anger, grief, acceptance. Its what you do after that that can take you down new interesting roads. You can stay stuck like Jatin. Or, with a little imagination and some tolerance for inconvenience, turn it into the mother of all adventures. Like Rahul who had his own electronics business which went bust a couple of years ago. He had to start all over again, from scratch. Hes now getting into the food business, and everything is scary and new and exciting. Currently hes negotiating with a foreign chain wanting to enter India. Hes much savvier in his dealings because he has learnt where the pitfalls are.

Yes, money is tight these days. So he doesnt dine at the Taj anymore he eats at a neighbourhood barbecue place instead. And he isnt ashamed to talk about his hard times. Far from turning people off, hes found that his honesty actually warms others to him. I cannot tell you how much Ive learnt, how many new things Ive done, how much courage Ive discovered, he says. If you havent had some tough knocks, maybe you should order out for some. With his attitude, he turned an ending into a beginning.

The best thing to do with failure is to reframe it. See it as something entirely different. Youre not someone who lost your job, youre someone who learnt what not to do next time. You are smarter, wiser and all youve learnt is lying inside you like a brand new set of tools, ready for your use. Failure makes you thoughtful and attentive, says career counsellor Barbara Sher. Its like having a wise old guru inside your head. Looked at this way, failure is a kind of success.

And look at what you know now: You know what you dont want. You know what you cant do. You know where the minefields lie. You can live in ambiguity. You can manage with less. You are no longer soft like those fat guys in cushy jobs who never had any hardship. You already made the mistakes, so you wont make them again. In fact, to future employers, you can proudly pitch your mistakes as your greatest assets.

Dont even think of it as failure. Think of it as an institution of higher learning.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at