You’ve heard it before: Failure is part of being human. What is not, perhaps, as widely discussed is the upside of failure—that our moments of imperfection can actually make us stronger. On episode five of Relate, you’ll hear the story of a man who hit rock bottom—he was homeless, an alcoholic—but somehow turned a single dime into a business empire. You’ll also get some useful tips on how to transform crash-and-burn experiences into stepping stones to success.
Featured in this episode:
Entrepreneur and humanitarian Frank O’Dea
Performance psychologist Mark Aoyagi
Journalist and author Ian Brown
MALE: I had thought at one point that as a professional musician I had failed. I wasn't playing what I wanted to play, I was playing other people's music.
FEMALE: Do you remember just freezing up for speeches you had to give in elementary school, and I completely froze.
FEMALE: I am now almost 56 years old, and I look at my mistakes with pleasure and joy because I survived.
TAMARA STANNERS: (Music) Okay, I want you to picture yourself at the moment of some epic fail. Maybe it was like a big speech or an important job. It sucked, right? Failure is a part of being human, but the surprising thing is that failure is also necessary for success. As you'll hear on this episode of the Relate Podcast, you can't have one without the other. Coming up, the story of a man who had basically failed at everything. He was homeless, he was an alcoholic, he had no future, but you'll hear how he turned one single dime into a business empire. There's also a piece about a serious case of writer's block. How an author's failure to finish a book let him to his most successful work.
You'll get some useful tips on how to take those crash and burn experiences and turn them into stepping stones to success. From Performance Psychologist Mark Owiagi.
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TAMARA STANNERS: I'm Tamara Stanners and this is Relate by Zendesk. It's a show all about relationships. Today in particular, it's about those relationships that get you through life's big screw ups. Frank O'Dea was in rough shape. He'd hit rock bottom at 26 with nothing to look forward to but days of panhandling for his next bottle of wine. He had failed completely. And he might have died on the street, except for a stranger's dime and a sliver of hope.
FRANK O'DEA: When I was 26 years old a day in my life was made up of panhandling for nickels and dimes, two guys and I worked the street. We would get a bottle of wine, drink the wine, and the conversation went something like this.
MALE: "Tomorrow I'll quit drinking. Tomorrow I'll call my family. Tomorrow I'll get a job. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow ..." FRANK O'DEA: And back to panhandle for another bottle of wine.
MALE: "... Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow."
FRANK O'DEA: At the end of the day we had to make the most important decision of the day and that was, when we'd go back to Young Street and get 50 cents each so we could sleep indoors, or would we sleep on a park bench? Indoors was five guys to a room. And the rule was you tied your shoelaces around your ankles, otherwise the first guy up got the best pair of shoes. One morning I was standing, waiting for the other two guys to come out, when I just got to the point where I couldn't go any further.
Oh I don't mean I couldn't drink anymore, I could. Or get arrested again, or get into another fight--I could do all of that. But it just seemed that I traded off everything I learned as a kid, it seemed like I had traded off my very soul. And the two thoughts that were going through my mind at that point were die or change, and suicide was a constant thought. I thought life was over and, in fact, if you probably had seen me sleeping on a park bench the night before or the week before, you would have said, "That guy’s life is finished."
And that's how it felt to me. Like I had no options, I had no future--hope was some marginal little flicker in somewhere in my soul that was quickly going out. I mean in those days living on the street, the future was the next hour. You couldn't think beyond that, so the light was dimming and there was no, it seemed like, no option at all. Or I'd heard a commercial on a radio some months before, and although I don't remember the commercial itself, the tag-line said ...
MALE: "If you're having a problem with drinking call us, we're in the book. Call us, we're in the book."
FRANK O'DEA: And that resonated that morning.
MALE: "Call us, we're in the book."
FRANK O'DEA: So I went to King and Young Street, a very busy corner in Toronto, and held up my hand. And out of the crowd a guy walked out of the crowd and dropped a dime in my hand and walked out of my life. In and out of my life in a moment. You could say, that I built my entire life on that dime. And I took that dime and I made a phone call and I never had another drink... I went to a meeting that night and came home and I slept in that little flophouse, in that little five guys share a room, yet I was full of hope. I thought just maybe I could be sober, and if I could be sober I could change my life.
The process was not overnight. For the first six months I was completely unemployable. I sobered up two days before Christmas, and I lived at the Salvation Army and I just was not employable at all. And I just focused on getting sober for the first six months. But after six months some friends took me up to the Extoggery which is a place that sells used clothing, and they bought me a suit. A green pair of pants (laughs) and a green plaid jacket. I haven't worn green since, but nonetheless I then had to go out and get a job.
And this was before computers so I had no address, top of my resume was panhandling. No phone, no cell phones in those days, so how did you get a job? Well you just knock on doors. Eventually somebody hired me. It wasn't much of a job, it was a little job, but I knew if I had a job I'd get another one. And that was the beginning. And I got back on my feet. I got a job and before long I found myself selling construction equipment. And that was the beginning of my business career.
One day a guy came by and asked if I'd run his campaign for election. This guy needed some help, he'd heard that I'd had some experience and, much to our surprise, he won that election. And the guy that helped me on that was a guy named Tom Culligan. And Tom Culligan and I looked at each other after successfully running that campaign and said, "We work so well together, we should go into business for ourselves." We had no idea what business and we had no money. We went in the coffee business. We called it, "The Second Cup." It was an ultimate disaster. It was a disaster from the very beginning.
We didn't know it because we didn't have a book-keeper, so we opened two more stores, and we lost money even quicker. And that was the beginning of, "The Second Cup." The, the thing that people need to know about The Second Cup in 1974 was that coffee consumption outside of the home was declining at 14% a year. People were not drinking coffee. Why? Because it was terrible stuff. If you went to a restaurant and got a coffee, they got the cheapest possible product, they put it on the table. If they made it at 3:00 in the afternoon, and you were there at 9:00 at night, that's what you got, it was terrible.
Kids were no longer drinking coffee, they were drinking soft drinks. When we introduced coffee by the cup in a gourmet coffee store, which was uh, revolutionary in those days, nobody did that. Every coffee store in North America was the same, it sold coffee beans, dried goods only. We were losing money so quickly we needed to come up with a solution. We made coffee on the counter, and we offered coffee at then the outrageous price of 35 cents a cup. And it was premium priced and people lined up and never went away. Why? It was great coffee from a variety of countries so there was some choice and we threw it out every 30 minutes if it wasn't sold. And so it was always fresh.
Changed the market, created a whole industry that heretofore did not exist. Out of that came Starbucks, and all the others that started subsequent to what we did. So yes it changed the market. We had grown three stores and then four, five, six. We were offered a seventh store in Eaton Center, Toronto, and it was a terrific shopping center. We went to the bank to borrow some money and the banker with great prescient said, "That with six stores, we'd saturated the market for coffee stores in North America," and wasn't prepared to lend us any money. So here was an experienced business person sitting across the desk, a banker who's telling us our idea didn't work and he was not interested.
And furthermore, they wanted us to get out of the bank. That could have destroyed us. Tom and I could have been destroyed by that very decision, but instead of that we turned to hope. Hope has always been the beginning of everything for me. And we focused on where we wanted to go with The Second Cup, not this guy’s opinion. And we spoke to a number of other bankers, some of whom shared the first guy's opinion, but then we found the guy that understood. He financed our business and we grew our business together. So the moral of the story is there are all kinds of people that will often tell you it cannot be done.
There are lots of times that it looks like it can't be done. The purpose and the beginning of my life has always been around hope and vision and action. Take the hope, turn it into a vision ...
TAMARA STANNERS: Hope and vision and action. Take the hope. Turn it into a vision, and take the action to get it there. Does that mean everything's successful? No. Of course not, but it offers the opportunity to make the changes that are required to, to become successful. After all, our first stores were not successful. They were a disaster, but it offered us an opportunity to begin to make the changes. Entrepreneurs do that all of the time. Things don't work. You make a change, and they do work. That has been my success, and that's been my story, but more importantly, the act of kindness of that one guy with that one dime, that one moment at that one moment in time in and out of my life, and I'll never know who he was, changed my life and changed everybody's life I touched from that moment on.
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TAMARA STANNERS: The fear of failure is a thing that stops a lot of people from achieving their goals. For athletes and musicians, figuring out how to manage that fear is one of the key skills in achieving success. For Mark Aoyagi, a big part of the process is defining failure. Knowing what it is can help you tame the beast.
MARK AOYAGI: My name is Mark Aoyagi. My title is Director of Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Denver, and my area of expertise is Sport and Performance Psychology. We generally divide Performance Psychology into four domains. One is sport, working with athletes. A second is high risk occupation, so that's where the military, firefighters, police officers, first responders comes into play. And then a third would be performing arts, so that could be stage performers, musicians, actors, actresses, things like that. And then the fourth area is business professionals. Ultimately what I do and, and what I think defines the field is teach the mental and emotional skills and abilities to allow people the short way I say it is to perform their best when it counts the most.
I would say in general actually a lot of the work that I do is sort of clarifying misconceptions about what it does take to perform mentally and emotionally. And certainly failure is something that falls very well into that category, so a lot of it has to do with understanding one, sort of what failure actually means, and you know, I think the common misconception is that, you know, everybody that didn't win was a failure.
So, for example, I work with track and field and you have, you know, a cross country race where 500 people might line up to start the race, and at the end of the race, I don't think it makes any sense to have one, you know, that there's one winner and 499 failures. And the other thing that it does is it acknowledges the performance process that if you're not taking risks and if you're not taking chances and being courageous about putting yourself out there then you're very unlikely to actually attain your full capability, so understanding that “failure” in terms of not getting the result that you want on any particular day is actually a really important part of the growth and development process.
And if you try and go through your training and development and your competition without ever having a misstep or having a “failure” you're really gonna limit your ability to develop the capabilities that you have.
There's actually been some really interesting research done with Olympic champions where they talk about actually if they didn't have those adverse experiences and if they didn't have experiences that they may have thought of as a failure at the time or the media or others thought it was a failure, they actually wouldn't have ended up becoming Olympic champions. And so it was really through that experience and then the growth and learning that they had from that experience that then allowed them to go on and thrive and become the performer that was able to win an Olympic medal.
If you look at both my experience working with people that have faced adversity, as well as the literature, there's usually three things, three positive things, that will come out of it. One is perspective. That whatever adversity they're facing now is put into perspective and they're able to shape it and frame it in a way that works for them that becomes a positive experience for them. Two is that they find a source of social support. Their social connections, their interpersonal connections become more meaningful and helpful for them.
For men a lot of times, it's that they're more willing to seek help, whereas a lot of men are socialized to really not seek help and not show vulnerability. And then the third thing is really that inner reservoir of ... Different people call it different things. Whether you wanna call it faith or spirituality or mental toughness or religiosity or whatever it is ... Where they really have an identity that says, you know, "I'm a person that can work through challenging circumstances," and they know that they can be self reliant and get through those circumstances while also not feeling ashamed or, you know, less than somehow for relying on social support and interpersonal relationships to support them during those times as well.
What you're really trying to do is take away the identity piece from that, so that the ... You know, the language that we use, we say, "I am a failure," and what we're trying to show is that that language and that word doesn't define you. It's not your identity. You may have not gotten the results you wanted at a particular day or a particular competition, but the most important thing is that doesn't mean that you can't ever get those results.
And a lot of times when people, whether it's New Year's resolutions or they have an epiphany, they try and change a lot of things. And you know, what we know from a training perspective and from a psychological perspective is, change is hard. So, when people are trying to implement a change and they say, "Okay, I'm going to lose weight by ... I'm gonna diet, and I'm gonna exercise more, and I'm going to change the way that I eat meals and the times that I eat meals," that's a lot of change, and that's a lot of opportunities for your body to say, "Uh-uh. Not happenin'," and make it really uncomfortable for you.
So, point is, um, pick one preferably small change at a time. Allow that habit or that new set point to develop, and then you can add another piece onto that. But when people try to make these massive changes or changes across multiple areas of their lives, it's almost doomed to failure.
There's a few keys to this. Number one is it's usually not something they can do themselves, so, we always recommend that they get some sort of instructor or mentor or teacher in the area that they wanna develop. And part of that function is for that mentor to demonstrate and teach the person when it's time to add a new skill or adjust a technique or tweak a tactic. Another, and this is a really hard one for anybody that is a high achiever, and really anyone in our society these days, is patience. To recognize that the change process takes a long time and you can't rush it. And there's a couple of really common reasons why goal setting doesn't work for people.
One is that a lot of the goals people set actually aren't goals. They're just sort of wishes, and the difference between a goal and a wish would be that a goal is something that you have specified so it's a very clear objective. And then the other piece that's usually missing is that progress towards the goal needs to be measurable. So, you know, saying, "I want to be a better person," ... That's not a goal. That's a wish. Saying that "I want to provide support for my wife on five out of the seven days of the week," ... Now that's a much more specific and measurable goal.
So, that's, that's one of the reasons that goal setting fails a lot. And so, you know, where a support system can be helpful is to really help a person refine and define what that goal is and then add a measurable component to it, so that's a real key is to recognize that part of the goal setting process is adjusting the goals as we learn more about kind of our journey towards that goal.
TAMARA STANNERS: Okay, so there you go. Now you know what it takes to be an Olympic athlete or a music superstar. It's probably not quite that simple, but every bit of information helps, right? We've got more articles on managing failure over on the online magazine, including the article "How to overcome professional failure and career setbacks: what comes next?" Check it out at relate.zendesk.com.
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TAMARA STANNERS: Failure is the theme of this episode of Relate. The moral of this next story I think is to never count anybody out. This piece on failure centers on the award-winning writer and journalist, Ian Brown, and his serious, paralyzing, multi-year case of writer's block. It was Ian's relationship with his editor that provided a key insight into why he was so stuck. IAN BROWN: I'm Ian Brown. I'm a writer, a journalist, uh, as well as I write books as often as I can when I'm not doing journalism. I have so many failures that it's hard to choose one, but one of the biggest ones, the one that I think about most ... You know, I work as a journalist, as a writer and I'm always looking for a bigger story--something that grabs me.
And one day I woke and I ... There on the front page of the newspaper, it was this story about a couple up in a part of the city that's very wealthy who've been kidnapped by two guys. And they've been stuck in the trunk of a car and driven across the city and they were taken up to the 12th or 16th or 18th floor of some hideous, broken down, awful tenement building where they were blindfolded and placed on a chair in the middle of a room.
And there were three people who did this, who committed this crime. One of the guys then stayed, (it was a young guy), he stayed there watching them and the other two went back to their house where they were gonna clean it out. Meanwhile, the guy who was watching them smoked too much pot and fell asleep and the couple managed to escape. And as a result, the other two were apprehended and these guys eventually went to jail for a very long time. I mean more than a dozen years for an unsuccessful kidnapping.
Anyway, there was something about this, about being in the back of a trunk and, and then getting away and ... Immediately, as I read it, I thought, you know, this is a book. And so that very afternoon, I sat down, I wrote a letter to my editor and I said, "This is a great story. I think it's a book. Heres ..."
I love in Toronto and, and it's about the city is in transition and that's hugely wealthy and, and very poor. There's a massive disparity. And at that time, nobody was really talking about this. I thought, "I think this is a really good book and it's a great story."
Anyway, I wrote this proposal that very afternoon and boom it went off and they came back immediately and said, "You know, here's quite a lot of money." And I thought, "Well, this is fantastic." And at that point, I began calling around and I immediately, I wrote to the victim and his wife. I called their lawyer. I made the ride in the back of a trunk, you know, just to see what it was like. I have notes on that. I covered the trial. I covered everything.
I've got a, a stack of documents, a foot and a half high and research and notebooks and, and then suddenly I couldn't write the book and I had a second child. And time went by, I mean like the years went by. A year, two years, three years, three and a half years, four years and I was really freaking out. And my second child had some problems. He was born disabled.
Every day, I would wake up and I've got to do work on the book and every day I would not, and every day I would feel worse. And every day then ... Every night, I would wake up in the middle of the night and I kept saying to my editor, "It's taking longer. It's taking longer." And it just finally was it. It was really a mess. To the point where they had mocked up a cover of the book.
Okay, so they were talking about when would the manuscript come in so we could sell it. I mean there was a lot of pressure about this. My agent kept calling me and he would say things like, "See, I remember when I first spoke to you, when I first took you on." He said, "You were 35 at the time and you said you wanted to write five books by the time you're 40. And, uh, you're nearly 40 now and thought those books would come through. And you would always say to me, 'Well, I'm, I'm right on track then. I'm not 40 yet."
And my agent seemed to find this hilarious and he told me this story every single time. I met him and it would just make me feel like such a terrible ... Like a complete ... And so I was ... You know, I had fallen into this bottom of this hole. And it's not that I had hit rock bottom. I was still descending. I was still going down the hole.
And the sense of uselessness and emptiness and... They say, "You keep writing because you never know when the well goes dry and the well, Ian, has gone dry for you. You loser." And I called my agent. I called my editor. This was after five years. I called my agent. I called my editor and I said, "I can't do it." I couldn't actually sit down at the end of the day or first thing in the morning and write it. And I couldn't figure out why and I thought, "Well, I've obviously dried up."
And eventually, my editor, who's a woman, as opposed to my agent who's a man... My editor said to me, "Look, maybe you can't write this book at this point. Maybe you should write another book." And I said, "Well, you know, I've been thinking of writing this book about my son." And, and she said, "Well, that's, that's a good idea."
And that I knew I could do because I had, I had been keeping a diary and I had an editor at the newspaper who kept saying to me, "Why don't you write about that? Why don't you write about that?" And I keep saying, "No, no, no. It's too, you know, complicated, too personal."
But as it turned out, I started on that and did it in stages and I finally finished that book and that was a complicated book. But I finished it and my editor edit it and she loved it. She said, "No, this is a fantastic book." And I said, "Well, I'm glad you like it. But I'm really sorry about letting you down on the first one because this was the kind of substitute."
And she turned to me and she said, "Well, now that I've read this second book ..." Which was about raising my son. Uh, this complicated guy who can't speak and who can't think for himself. You know, he's, I guess at the time I wrote the book, he was maybe, um, 15 and he looked about nine. And, you know, he has the mind of a one and a half year old and he has needs, special care all the time.
She said, "Well, you know, the-, now that I've read this book about your soon, I realized why you couldn't write the first book." I said, "What do you mean? Why, tell me why I couldn't write the first book. Because I thought it was a failure of nerve. It was a failure of... It was a failure of a bunch of things."
She said, "No, no, it's, it's perfectly obvious that you were preoccupied with figuring out something bigger. You didn't have the time. You didn't have the energy that you were completely overwhelmed by not knowing how to keep this child alive and, you know, not knowing what this purpose was in life and trying to figure out if he had a purpose because you're not a sentimentalist." All this sort of thing.
And it was only then when she said, "You couldn't write the book that I realized that I couldn't write the book and that if I had written it, I probably wouldn't have been paying attention to my son." And I know I wouldn't have written the book that I did write which was a more important book to me and not a failure.
So instead of describing this comedy of errors, you know, two people got ... They were walking in the snowstorm and they got picked up. They got thrown in a trunk. They lived through it. It's about randomness that almost doesn't mean anything. Whereas Walker's life, my son's life, is about randomness that may actually mean a great deal because in the process of trying to figure out what purpose his life had, if it has any, I had to define for myself what success was. I mean what is a successful life? Is it a life that conforms to all the expectations we place
on it? Or is a life that is a successful one that allows other people to connect to it and feel something? In other words, that makes a contribution that's very subtle? That we might not even think of as a contribution because of the way we define success and failure. So in a way, by failing at the first book, I got to figure out what, what success and failure really is and it was completely different than what I thought.
TAMARA STANNERS: The book Ian Brown mentioned eventually made its way onto the New York Times top 10 books list. It's also earned him several prestigious literary awards. It's called, "The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for His Disabled Son."
That's it for Relate this time around. In two weeks, we'll have an episode for you on travel. Relationships are different when you travel. More intense. More immediate. They're often more memorable too. You'll hear stories of bonding in exotic locales and unlikely connections across cultures. In the meantime, you can subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts. That way, you'll get the next episode automatically.
For more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways, visit relate.zendesk.com. And if you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions, head over to zendesk.com for a free trial. I'm Tamara Stanners. Talk to you soon.