Failure comes before success?


Mick explores why failure is not always as bad as we think it is

Life is not all blue skies and fluffy white clouds

Life is not all blue skies and fluffy white clouds

In life, we often define ourselves by our successes and failures. No one person has experienced one without the other. It is bred into us, now more than ever before, that success is paramount to everything we ever do. Isn’t this wrong? And isn’t it unrealistic to place such high expectations on ourselves all of the time? Our Head of Herd Mick has had many years in business, and here reflects on how past experience with embarrassing failures actually ended up being worth much more in the long run than succeeding every step of the way.

I am writing this as I had a heated discussion with my girlfriend about the word failure. I pointed out that failure was essential to success, she disagreed, so I thought I would write about a time when failure created success in my life.

The cold took my breath away and I made that attempted scream, but no noise came out, not even a hint of a squeak. Then I realised I didn’t know which way was up or down, left or right, and my lungs were filling up with water. I panicked! This made me bash my head and left arm off something hard and wooden. It all came flooding back to me, I was in Nottingham, competing in a Dragon Boat Race and we had capsized after going only 3 metres. Now embarrassment was the emotion running through me. We all got to shore safely, but the Dragon Boat was upside down and the ores were floating away. The official approaching me was not best pleased. I took the surrender pose as he approached, bowed my head, trying (and failing) to reduce my size, to signal to him that we were sorry.

This happened more than twenty years ago, and yet I still reflect on it now while trying to understand my purpose (very deep and meaningful - I am aware). I found 3 important lessons from this amazing day. Purpose, Trust and Direction are essential in leading a team of people.

15 people from William Morris Hall, in Loughborough University had given up there Sunday morning lie-in to help the Halls beloved Warden and second Father to 500 students, Jim. He organised regular charity events and because we respected Jim’s fairness and his forgiving nature, we all made an effort to support him.

My vision of charity Dragon Boat racing was very different from the reality that actually panned out. I had visualised 50 people, a couple of boats, drinking beers in the sun and splashing about for a few hours. Raising money for “Charity Mate!” and then back to the bar.

What actually happened, was very different. I was bundled out of a mini bus at 8am on a Sunday morning with a very sore body from rugby and a worse head from the after-match frivolities. There were hundreds of people, thousands, the grandstands were full, people sat on any space available, Nottingham National Water Sports centre was at capacity. There were three Dragon Boat competitions, Charity Event (50m), Intermediate (250m) and National Event (500m) and lots of teams, plus they were all wearing matching clothing with sponsors. This was a much bigger deal than any of us thought it would be. We might be out of our depth, but at least we had only been entered into the charity competition.

As I was the biggest and loudest I was sent to be our representative. After 20 minutes of heated discussion there had been a mistake. The organisers had put our application in to the top competition, they had ignored William Morris Hall and just seen Loughborough University. Out of the 15 students taking part none of us had even seen a Dragon Boat, never mind competed in one. Loughborough University is the best sports university in Europe and the organisers had wrongly assumed that we would have a very good Dragon Boat Team. As you already know, we certainly were not. We were a person down and we decided that it was better to have someone at the helm, rather than beating the drum, but that was the least of our problems.

The organiser was irate, and he let us know, after lots of talking, they would not let us onto the water again. We were a danger to ourselves and the equipment, as we did not have anyone with any experience. An older gentleman was stood listening to our plight and my earlier appeals that we had been put into the wrong competition, and that we were here to raise money for our warden’s charity. I pleaded to see if there was anything they could do? This older Gentleman walked over to me and the organisers and this is roughly what he said:

“I’ve overheard the conversation and I am prepared to help these guys out, based on a couple of promises. I have competed in Dragon Boat racing for years and my son is competing with last year’s winning team. I am willing to take the helm and promise the team that I will ensure they finish all the races, as long as they promise to keep me dry?”

We quickly agreed. Drives (our nickname for him) gave us clear simple direction, he made it clear that we needed to concentrate on rowing together, reducing friction. Out of the 15 students we had 2 future professional rugby players, a future Olympic Gold medallist, a future Olympic Swimmer, GB Gymnast, National Volleyball player, so we were a fit and highly competitive bunch and we were not willing to fail a second time.

Drives set us in the boat to balance and distribute the weight equally, he showed us how to put the paddle in the water and ensured we did it on the beat of the drum. In simple terms just copy exactly what the person in front is doing, in essence we just needed to be smooth. He told us to imagine we were a Swiss watch, we just needed to be in time. We took this simple direction to heart and did it the best we could. He insisted we communicated, encourage and were in sync.

Our second race we came plumb last, but only by 20 metres. Third race we came in third, our final group race we won. We had gotten through to the knockout stages, we then went on and won the whole thing. We beat Drives’ own son in the final. The trophy was a Dragon and it was so big it had to held by two people. We went back to the bar and wrote our win off to ‘Loughborough Arrogance’, “confidence in our skill and ability”. The funny thing was that we never discussed winning at all throughout the day, we just focused on rowing smooth together and our aim was to keep Drives dry.

23 years later I reflected on that day and I put the success down to three simple things:

Purpose – We had all joined Jim’s desire to raise money for his charity and this created a common purpose in us all, even Drives.

Trust – Drives created a mutual trust by getting both parties to agree a two-way promise, we had mutual trust immediately.

Direction – Drives lead us by making everything simple and allowing autonomy, while ensuring we were moving in the right direction and altogether.



All teams, and I believe, business, should start with these three elements to try and limit failure, this advice is based on our failure and then subsequent success. Failure is a part of learning and learning is the key to success, therefore, you could say that failure creates success. If we hadn’t failed so catastrophically, then I believe we would never have succeeded.

I believe that failure creates success.

Over and snout,