Failing ‘Intelligently’ can make you Succeed

Stronger with Rakesh Shukla™

Learn from previous mistakes, and review feedback to achieve goals

I know about failing spectacularly, and I know even more about succeeding after you’ve failed spectacularly. In my comeback over five years of rebuilding my life, I found that while I had the courage and the will to succeed, just having resilience in doing the same things over and over again would not turn my tide.

Making an attempt and failing at it is valuable. Getting up after it, more so. But making the same attempt again is stupidity. Nobody can help a person who gives up against all odds. But the difference between those who keep trying and do not succeed, and those who do, might be this.

We’ve been taught since childhood that failure is the stepping stone to success. But we also know that only some patterns of failure lead to success. When I first started rebuilding my company, and my life, it was incredibly frustrating. I could not build the same company simply because it ran on millions of dollars of annual budgets with hundreds of people. When I reached out to customers and — if they did indeed want to engage — there was little I could do to serve them.

My company TWB had a large Fortune 500 customer list; it was a large company that grew on internal cash flow. So clearly it was a viable revenue model and operational practice. Yet, failure in the business leadership team precipitated by my absence over a year had caused the company to get wiped out. The first mistake was that in this one year, we had tried to stick to the same revenue model that had made us successful — even when it failed quarter after quarter.

When I was literally the only person left in the company I was still selling the same story. It was incredibly frustrating because I was ignoring my past experiences and each failed attempt was like I was making it for the first time. What I was not doing was sift through past failures and either retain or replace components. 

It took me another year to build that feedback loop. But something even more unnerving started happening — as I changed the story from this big corporate catering to Fortune 500 clients, I was failing even faster! What I did not realize is that progress accelerates with experience. It took me another two years to have made all the mistakes, taken all the feedback and made hundreds of failed attempts before we started seeing a consistent model of generating income and revenue. 

Learning from failures

Over this period I learnt how while I was making successive attempts and failing overall, I was succeeding. The overall five-year journey can be broken into three phases:

  • Phase 1 – ‘If I keep trying I will succeed’:  At this stage, I was investing little time in learning from the immediate past failed attempt. I was trying to stick to the blueprint of what had happened over ten years of creating the company. The lessons I had to learn were coming from this last failed attempt, not what happened five ago or even a month ago — but I wasn’t listening.
  • Phase 2 – ‘Acceptance of failure’: I began to accept that by making more attempts I was not actually making any progress. So success was not a question of how many attempts I should make.  It was a hard realisation to give up the idea of the self-made CEO of the multimillion-dollar company. That company didn’t exist and I did not have the portfolio of skills to service those customers. 
  • Phase 3 – ‘Intelligent failure attempts’: Giving up the idea of this large corporation left me with the one tool that I did bring to this situation — myself. I brought a large portfolio of business skills and I brought tremendous fight into whatever I did. So TWB_ and VOSD started building smaller brands and pitches —  artefacts as I call them. And I’d make a large number of attempts to move each pitch. When something did not work I took the feedback from the last failed attempt, made the adjustment and attempted again.

When I was making TWB for the first time I was failing slowly because I was cautious of doing things with the resources I had and not letting them go to waste. On the other hand, when I had no resources and they were more precious I was failing faster and more frequently, but each attempt was smaller as well.

The earlier proposal win rate was > 70% because of the quality of the service and the niche that we serviced. I estimate that over the last year we’ve had more intelligent failures than in a decade before that! Essentially I was making a library of reusable failed attempts that I could refer to for what worked or didn’t. I call these attempts as ‘intelligent failures.’

Work smart, not hard

I also learnt that ‘intelligent failure’ required that I work smarter, not harder. When I was initially building TWB, I remember that I used to work for 16 hours a day, seven days a week for two years. But the feedback loop of ‘intelligent failure’ required that I process the information and with that, my time away from a computer or a customer increased.

Today I have a four-hour workday and that is on the way to create a company 10x larger than before! The rest of my time looks empty but that is when I’m actually processing the previous failure and planning a new failed attempt.

The power and value of feedback

In life, success is not guaranteed but I have learned the merit of working smarter not harder. I know that keeping a tight feedback loop allows me to fail faster and refine my library of components that work. It can be seen simply in the fact that I have a four-hour workday or less, and with 10 people, we have the income level of what TWB had with 100 employees.

I do not even live in the city, I live on a farm with my 900+ rescued dogs with a patchy data connection — it can take up to two hours just to upload this blog. But uploading it is also a lesson in intelligent failure, for it has made me observe during which parts of the day I will have an internet connection to work better!

Trying does not make you successful. Trying, failing, learning and doing it fast enough does.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.

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