#122: You Will Fail. It’s Okay.

Good morning friends

Before contemplating failure, let’s warm ourselves with some success…

Vusi Beauchamp’s solo show “The Cult of One” will open in New York in September. It is his debut in that city, so is an exciting milestone in his career.

Ceramicist, Andile Dyalvane, also continues to beguile the world with his brilliance. His latest accolade was a special mention in the Loewe Foundation’s Craft Prize for his work, Cornish Wall. With this creation, Dyalvane has conjured the Cornish coastline into a new form.

Reinforced by the courage that comes from spending time in the company of excellence, let’s step into the fact you will fail, we all fail, and it’s okay.


Last week’s letter, Finding Love in Work, introduced you to this How I Built This episode with Otis and Elizabeth Chandler, the co-founders of the world’s largest book recommendation site, Goodreads.

I said that I would return to some strategy insights from their journey, so here we are.

Soon after Otis started building Goodreads, he was told that there was a competitor doing something similar. On investigation, he felt that what he was trying to build was sufficiently different. He carried on.

Then, a few weeks before launch, he heard that there was a competitor that was doing precisely what Goodreads was aiming to do. This team had seed funding from Amazon plus a handful of permanent employees. That felt like a real threat.

Again, he looked at them. They were definitely a competitor, but he felt that despite their advantages Goodreads had better functionality. He kept on coding, and they launched. The competitor was eventually shuttered, and Amazon bought Goodreads instead.

It is almost impossible to launch something entirely new, never-heard-of, never-been-seen-or-tried-or-thought-of-before new. Invariably, someone somewhere will have tried something similar to the thing that we’re about to try.

As Elizabeth and Otis show, that need not stop you. Of course, they didn’t blunder on. They paused. They assessed. And then they put their heads down and focused on making their business the best it could be.

Raz and the Chandlers also discuss online shoe retailer, Zappos. Like Amazon tried to start a book recommendation site, they had tried, unsuccessfully, to create a shoe retailer. It was a sobering reminder. Amazon has had enormous success, and it has had expensive failures.

To eventually crack shoe retail and book recommendations, Amazon had to buy Zappos and Goodreads. They tried to do it themselves and couldn’t get it right.

Sometimes, we will fail. It doesn’t mean that the game is over. Amazon’s successes have outweighed its failures. Powerful strategy includes having a tolerance for failure and the ability to recover from it.

Sometimes the successes will be mysterious, even lucky. When Goodreads started, the Kindle didn’t exist, but its launch was a tremendous accelerant for the business. Without the Kindle, an Amazon innovation, Goodreads would’ve been a much smaller business.

The Chandlers built a business that was more successful than the Amazon-seeded start-up. Their success was, in part, aided by another Amazon business. That sequence of events could never have been predicted in any strategy session, no matter how sophisticated. The world is infinitely complex. We have to do what we do best, and good luck often comes along.

(If you’re running a consumer-facing business Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness is a fantastic read. Hsieh sadly passed on in November 2020.)


I love Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s wry comment “Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”

Or, as one of the world’s greatest athletes, Michael Jordan, once put it, “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.”

We don’t start out excellent. We are never faultless all the time.

A life of mastery is one of ongoing improvement. Improving requires that we stretch beyond what we can currently do. We will feel insecure. We will fail. We will get better.

McPhee writes that “if you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

This is true for all professions. We all experience doubt at some point. Sometimes, it is okay, indeed sensible, to feel insecure or impatient. It is a humble awareness of improvements that we need to make.


Nadia Davids’ An Imperfect Blessing captures Cape Town like no one else I’ve read – “…a city of wind and storms, of fierce sun and chilling fog, of long cold rains and terrible droughts, of unexpected hails and gales, and sometimes all of those things in one day. A city of unease, Cape Town. A moody city. A place of rock and water.”

Her book sets a tight stage on which the story of three generations of just one family, the Dawoods, unfolds. She places us in the few kilometres between Cape Town’s city centre, the suburbs of Walmer Estate, Observatory, and the ruins of District Six. And moves us between a few months in 1986, the bleak heart of apartheid’s most violent days, and a slightly longer sweep from the beginning of 1993 to May 1994, whilst South Africa inched towards democracy. With that tight frame, perhaps because of it, she takes us to the heart of being human.

She tells how history washes through generations, how unspoken stories shape our lives, and the complexity of loving each other and finding ourselves.

In one scene, Adam and Zarina confront their teenage daughters who had snuck out of school to attend the memorial service of murdered SACP leader, Chris Hani. Their daughters narrowly escaped the violence that ensued. But their eldest daughter, Nasreen, will accept none of her parents’ anger.

She is enraged by what she sees as her parents’ acquiescence to apartheid. She doesn’t know that her father’s circuitous route into the city retraces the scarred streets of District Six, the neighbourhood he grew up in and saw destroyed, that he drives that way to remember.

She doesn’t know that the Security Branch used to follow her mother home from school, taunting her, saying that they had her father, that he would never come home alive.

As their argument rages, all that history is present and unspoken, unknown.

Her parents never spoke of their loss. Her grandmother didn’t speak of the loss of District Six because her Kirstenbosch home had been ripped away before that. She had lived anticipating loss.

An Imperfect Blessing explores what it means to live and love, and to do so in a context that we hardly ever choose but can shape. Wherever you are in the world, you will leave richer for having read it.

All the best


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