Guest Post – Mike Stevenson: Embrace the richness of failure on your path to success

Mike Stevenson is Managing Director of Thinktastic, a motivational communications agency, and a celebrated speaker. On 16 February he spoke at a staff learning event at the College and ran two workshops on ‘How to present with power and influence.’

Mike champions Scotland’s colleges as the beating heart of Scotland’s prosperity. Here he talks of failure as his driver for success.

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I had business that was riding high for 16 years. The crash in 2008 put paid to many long-held contracts and despite fighting for the next two years to rebuild the business and sustain it through the economic downturn, I had to concede defeat and close it down.

It was a painful experience but, like everything else in life, external factors only have some bearing on what happened. There was an element of hubris too. I take full responsibility for that and have learned from the experience.

A year after the business closed, my sister wrote me a note in which she said: “I am so proud of the dignified way you have handled what must have been a horrible year.” That meant a lot to me and I think it reflects how I approach failure generally.

Having being thrown out of school at 15 years old, finding myself homeless in London and then working my hands to the bone in a multitude of low paid jobs  – I had been well grounded in coming back from disappointment.

The danger of success

What I had was a deeply held conviction that I would reinvent myself and start again. In a strange way, I felt life had become too comfortable for me and I needed the raw challenge of a new beginning. That may sound perverse but, I really do relish the opportunity to have to pick myself up again. It reminded me that life at its most elemental is about making mistakes, learning from them and emerging stronger as a result. My bank account suffered immeasurable damage but I was emotionally stronger and wiser as a result.

What I learned above all is that no enterprise can survive without the constant injection of new ideas and fresh energy. In this rapidly changing world those of us who rest on their laurels or spend too much time celebrating success risk failure. My business difficulties came at the end of a year in which we recorded the highest turnover and profit. Did we take our eye off the ball? Perhaps. What it taught me was that success can be a threat if we fall for its seduction.

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I now help businesses and public services to keep the fires of enthusiasm burning, raise performance and make innovation and future proofing part of a daily diet.

Everything I learned from business failure has been incorporated into my company Thinktastic which is about turning ‘great’ into ‘extraordinary’.

Great is no longer good enough

Too many of us stop at being great. Life is turbulent and unpredictable and humans were never designed to stay on repeat. In the last five years I have earned a reputation as a motivational speaker – that was never even on my radar as a possibility. It came from progression rather than a plan. What I do now is the embodiment of a lifetime’s experience and learning. People want authenticity and lived experience to draw inspiration from. In Scotland, we must learn to strive for success and keep raising the bar higher. But, we must also embrace failure and adversity as a vital stepping stone to success.

I was in South Beirut two days after the bombing of 2006. Destruction was everywhere. It was truly horrific. Amid the rubble was a man selling clothes.

“That’s where his shop was,” said my guide.

“It must have been awful to lose your shop.” I said.

His shrugged reply taught me a real lesson.

“I am not a shopkeeper, I give people style and confidence.”

We are best served by a passionate purpose. We should never lose sight of our purpose. I believe there are more spaces to fill than at any time in our history. When you combine the toxicity of some big brands and the emergence of new technologies and ideas we have the perfect storm – nothing that’s established is safe.

If your purpose is solely about money than your life will be shallow and vulnerable.  Real purpose drives us. Remember this, a child learning to walk falls over 200 times. When you fall, get back up and hold your head high. Try again and if you have to change your tactic than be ready to do so. The best people I know have failed along the line. Don’t shrink into the shadows. Come out fighting.

Look outside and find others to collaborate with. 1 + 1 can equal 3. When the owner of a pizzeria in New York was discussing how bad business was with his bookshop owner neighbour, they arrived at an idea which was to see both parties thrive: They created New York’s first bookshop pizzeria by integrating their businesses. Result? Success. Adversity and tough times are what we thrive on and history tells us again and again that failure can become our richest ally.

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