Failure Is Final

Taking a break from the Organizational Navigation theme, today I wanted to discuss failure. There are many quotes and memes about failure:

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert Kennedy
“Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Most of these, while inspirational, miss the mark of accuracy for me. “Failure” is defined by Oxford Languages as “lack of success”. That is not temporary; it is permanent. Failure is final. I think Thomas Edison’s famous quote on failure (in reference to inventing the incandescent light bulb) does a better job of illustrating this perspective, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Back in 2015, I bought a coffee truck. It was a complete coffee-shop-on-wheels.

This was my actual coffee truck

My idea was to gradually build a route in my city so that I could quit my job and run the truck Mon-Fri with only occasional weekend/evening events as “gravy”. I live about 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, and my city offers a bus service for commuters. Every weekday, 3 to 4 greyhound-style buses leave from a parking lot in my city between 7am and 8am. This was my opportunity to get my new business off the ground while staying employed full time.

So, (with appropriate permission) I parked near the bus stop. I knew that the riders would need to see me consistently; they would have to be able to rely on me being there if they were going to become regulars. I was prepared for things to begin slowly and build… I figured it would be a couple of weeks before that would start.

I was there every weekday from 6:15am until the last bus left around 8am for 6 weeks. By the end of the 6th week, I was selling a whopping one or two coffees per morning (out of about 200 people riding the buses). My one regular customer was a friend with whom I used to attend church, and he did not even ride the bus! He was just walking his wife to the bus stop every morning (she did not drink coffee).

After that I tried a few other locations, but nothing ever worked. I sold the truck and moved on to other things. Prior to executing my plan with the truck at the bus stop, and every single time I have mentioned it afterwards, the response from each person I have told has been the same: “That’s a great idea!” I thought so too. We were all wrong.

Maybe I did not give it enough time. Perhaps I was not visible enough. It might have worked better if I had more breakfast foods. Regardless, my plan was not successful at that time in that place. But did I fail? I prefer Edison’s perspective. I found one way it absolutely did not work, and I chose to change directions rather than persist down that road. Had I been willing to work events (fairs, shows, farmers markets, weddings, etc.), I have no doubt that the truck would have been profitable.

Some people in my life would say that my coffee truck adventure was a “failed business”. When I look back however, I glimpsed an opportunity and was not afraid to go after it. Had I not done so, I would always wonder what might have happened. Instead, now I know. I can put that idea to rest knowing that I strove for it. For me, that is not failure, nor is it success. It is something else.

“Presuccess” is perhaps the best way to express this “temporary lack of success”. While I had never heard this word, I am not the first to use it. I do think Edison would endorse it too though. Learn from your past presuccesses, and let each one bring you one step closer to success. Keep finding the ways that do not work until you find the one that does.

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