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Going The Distance

Samuel Thompson - Thursday, March 15, 2012

—( ‘This one's for you, Dad.’, with thanks to jrodmanjr )— Some businesses explode into being and take the world by storm overnight. Most others don’t, even if their creator thinks they will. The brave few who can power through their initial disappointment regardless fascinate me. More to the point, they’re usually successful. Which is brilliant.

In for the long-haul

Recently I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Richard Adams, founder of Traidcraft and one of the founders of the Fairtrade Foundation. Over the course of an hour or so he traced the evolution of the movements: their struggles, successes and pivotal moments.

More than anything else discussed it was the sheer tenacity he had shown in getting the projects off the ground that struck me.

Today we see the Fairtrade logo almost everywhere – evidence of a market worth an estimated £1.32 billion – but we don’t see the years of hard graft and disappointment it took to get there. That’s not to say there weren’t successes and rewards along the way (there were), but they seem to have been relatively few and far between. Yet through thick and thin he stuck at it, working to make his baby a success against the odds.

So what can we learn?

The power of the slog

The combination of energy and time is a formidable one. We’ve all seen the get rich quick spam littering the Internet or been awed by – and jealous of – the meteoric rises of the more famous entrepreneurs. In the vast majority of cases, however, things only start going right after a while.

Good ol’ serendipity

Working dusk till dawn in the hope that things will eventually work is a depressing but effective technique. If you’re religiously pushing yourself to get in touch with 50 people a day at some point you find someone who just happens to be exactly what you need: the supplier / customer / colleague / endorsement of your dreams.

The myth of failure (and the myth about the myth)

But what if it doesn’t work? What if you fail?

Failure gets a bad rap

For most of our lives we’re taught that failure is the enemy, that failing at something makes us a failure. In itself this leads to a deep seated fear of failure, which stops us from ever actually doing anything.

For me the very fact of failure demonstrates the bravery to be willing to fail, to have gotten out of bed and tried something. Far from being a failure, anyone who can do that deserves heaps of praise, regardless of the results.

Not necessarily a bad thing

This is a tough sell, but I’ll stick with it. Failure can be a good thing, a very well hidden blessing.

For one, you’ll have learnt something, even if it’s what not to do. And often that can be by far more useful than knowing what you should do.

Good judgement and well-honed instincts come from experience, and experience only comes from doing all the bad things. Having done them – and suffered for it – you’ll never do them again.


Without contradicting all of the above, failure is awful.

Something counts as a failure when it hurts, when it costs something. It’s very easy to lose sight of the long-term advantages of having failed when you think about the countless hours you ‘wasted,’ and all of the other opportunities you could have been pursuing.

Sad truth: failure can only be seen as a positive, subjectively, with hindsight; it’s only when you’ve succeeded that you see how important it has been.

Knowing when to stop

Hope is an ephemeral thing, but it’s also a damn good guiding light. My benchmark for quitting has always been the point when I lose hope completely.

Successful businesses seem to be built by those who can ignore naysayers, who are confident in their desire and idea. But very few small businesses have lasted if the central figure behind their inception doesn’t see a future in what they are doing.

This may mean going far beyond the point where it seems logically reasonable to stop, when everyone is telling you its hopeless or when everything seems to be going wrong. That’s the slog, and almost everyone who wants to get somewhere needs to go through it.

The very moment that you believe that it’s hopeless, when you lose your drive and passion for the thing you’re pursuing, when you can’t see any glimmer of future, that’s the point when you need to consider wrapping things up. Because once you stop fighting for it, no-one else will, and there is nothing more life-sapping and disheartening that being chained to a sinking ship that you don’t want to be on.

But if that moment never comes, keep at it and keep at it good. I don’t believe in fate or that all things are for the good, but I’m convinced that we can make our own luck, so long as we care enough and are willing to put in the work. Just look at Richard Adams.

Any good failure stories out there?

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