Failure's Nothing But a Learning Opportunity
“You learn nowt from getting it right first time.”
I can’t remember who first said that to me. Probably my parents, while singing the praises of my younger brother. But it’s true. Anyone who’s succeeded at anything knows that you learn a hell of a lot from failure.
I guess that’s why a blog post I read recently really struck a chord.
Last week, The Professional Copywriters’ Network published a great article from an anonymous author. “The success of my peers makes me feel like a failure.”
It’s an example of how the constant barrage of other people’s best bits on social media can leave us all re-assessing how awful we really are.
The post does end on a hopeful note – telling you to learn from your peers’ successes and enjoy your own victories. That’s nice. But it’s even better to learn from failures. So here we go. Here’s 603 Copywriting’s anti-success story. A list of some of my most monumental cock-ups, and a lesson you can learn from each.
Lessons from my Failures
Even I make mistakes. And I’m allegedly pretty great at what I do.
Failure One: Thinking I Know it All
I’ll have been a copywriter for ten years next year. I’ve been a junior copywriter, a middleweight, a communications manager, and now a freelancer. I’ve written for multinationals, folks off the telly, and a Premiership football club. I’ve managed rebrands, found voices for start-ups, and won over even the most skeptical customers.
So when I set up on my own, it was pretty easy to think I knew everything there was to know. That I was already a fully-formed copywriting genius and that success would surely follow.
Turns out I didn’t know how to run a business.
That my over-confidence was holding me back.
And that I’d never make this work if I didn’t eat some humble pie.
Since those first fraught weeks of freelancing, I’ve done SEO courses, spent hundreds of pounds on books, read thousands of blogs, and pecked the heads of my peers for any free advice possible. The quality of my work has improved immeasurably over 18 months.
And I’m still nowhere near as good as I thought I was.
The Lesson: The only excuse for not trying to improve yourself is that you’re dead. It’s OK not to know something. It’s OK to seek out advice. It’s OK to admit that you’re fallible, that you can’t do everything in the world brilliantly, and that you have room to improve.
And it’s never, ever, ever too late to stop trying to be better.
Failure Two: Not Asking for Help
Strange how many of these failures are due to overconfidence and stubbornness.
That’s why there’s a sign above my monitor which reads “This game is about MONEY, not your ego.” I highly recommend printing one off yourself.
A bit of ego is a good thing. It drives us on to do better, fuels us through those Sunday afternoon writing sessions, and makes us bulletproof when our job requires receiving constructive criticism on an hourly basis.
But it can make you feel like you can only depend on you.
That asking for help is an admission of failure.
People love helping. Makes them feel good. Puffs up their egos. And you get what you want out of it. Whether it’s advice, referral work or an extra bit of time to settle an invoice.
The Lesson: It’s better to ask for help than to be proud and destitute. People love sharing their experiences, so advice is always an email away. Successful people are often overworked, so they might be a good source of referrals. And if you ask really nicely, your wife might lend you a tenner to get to the match while you wait on that invoice being paid.
Failure Three: Not Planning Ahead
Being the romantic that I am, I took Andy Maslen’s guide to becoming a freelance copywriter on my honeymoon.
My blushing bride took copies of ‘The Psychopath Test’ and ‘Gone Girl.’ Take from that what you will.
Anyway, as I sunned myself in Lanzarote, I made a few notes from Maz’s tome. One of them was referring to a cautionary tale about planning ahead financially, and putting money aside to pay the tax bill.
I underlined that note.
Didn’t bloody take the advice to heart, but I underlined it.
Turns out that if you run a business, you need to plan ahead. Finances, marketing, the actual work. If you wing it, you’re not going to have much of a chance to learn from your failures.
The Lesson: Failure to plan is planning to fail might seem like the most trite piece of faux wisdom in the world ever. Turns out that when you’re staring at a significant tax bill with very little time to scrape the cash together, it’s the wisest thing you’ve ever heard.
Failure Four: Not Sticking to my Own Rules
I used to have lots of rules. Now I have one. Stick to Samuel Johnson’s golden rule of writing.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
As a freelancer, that’s especially important. Writing for free is picking your own pocket. So of course two weeks in to freelance life, I wrote a landing page for a guy from an internet forum on the promise that “he’d pay me if he liked it.”
No contracts were exchanged, no written promise of payment, just a vague agreement over the phone.
Turns out he’d asked six different writers to do a sample page for his six page website. Turns out he didn’t like any of them. Turns out that he used slightly edited versions anyway.
Fair play to the guy. Free content.
Shame on me and the other five credulous buffoons though.
The Lesson: Rules aren’t actually made to be broken. They’re made to keep your business afloat. So stick to your own rules, because the only person who gets hurt if you don’t is you.
Oh, and don’t write unless it’s for money, you blockhead.
What Have You Learned from Failure?
I’m not the only person to learn from his failures. A client of mine literally wrote the book on failing your way to success.
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