When you first jump into the world of Fintech, you feel like you’re drinking out of a firehose.
Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that you feel like the proverbial firehose is plotting to drown you and will stop at nothing short of a high-powered enema to do so. It’s a lot. Like a whole lot. So much so that it really feels as if you have to learn an entire new language. I remember when I would stay up late at night, laying upside down on my couch, reading through jargon and trying to make sense of all the acronyms.
Why are there so. many. acronyms. ?!
Now, while those late-night study sessions definitely helped me in everything from board room presentations to nerdy happy hours – they didn’t allow me to understand my new language, in full.
If you’ve ever learned a language yourself, you know that there is much more to master than just what is in your textbook or what your professor is having you practice that day. The fun words, some may say the most important words, are those that you only get from immersing yourself entirely. Oh yeah, I’m talking about the dirty words. Those four-letter vixens that spice up every conversation. Those words that raise eyebrows, cause nervous laughter, make you feel like you’re finally able to really ‘talk the talk’.
In Fintech these words are broken up into two categories. Those little phrases that are faux pas in conversation … things that make investors cringe or your fellow colleagues wrinkle their nose. Talk about synergy, how your product is revolutionary and has zero direct competition, or just say “decentralized” 47 times in a single conversation. We get it, your idea is revolutionary, innovative, unparalleled! Now while this isn’t total social suicide, you get the idea.
But the other set of Fintech cusswords is much more lethal. They are the ones that creep up from behind, settle into your mind, and fester. They’re whispered in hush tones, behind closed doors – if they’re even spoken at all. These are the ones I want to talk about.
So, we’ve established that I’ve been in business (specifically young startups) a long time. Some days it feels far too long. But on most days, it’s an utter joy. Being a part of this world is a wild ride and it has always reminded me of the saying, “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it. From the inside looking out, you can never explain it.”
But worry not, that has never stopped founders and CEOs from trying their damndest to proclaim their story. I’ve heard countless tales of some truly inspiring shit; how they conquered all, they overcame, they grew their business, their profit margin, they increased shareholder value to the point where unicorn didn’t even begin to describe them.
Their triumphs dazzle and delight, inspire and energize. At times you can literally feel the electricity in the air. The crowd dreams of grandeur and walks away ready to create their own success story. Which brings me to the first of those terrifying, dark, “he-who-must-not-be-named” words.
No matter who these wunderkinder are – they’re all going to fucking FAIL. (If they haven’t already, many times over)
And I mean fail hard. That kind of gut-wrenching defeat that makes you want to curl up in the fetal position. That feeling when you see your colleague calling you and think, “maybe if I fake my own death, I can get out of this next meeting.” Or worse, if you were insane enough to have started the company, it’s a crippling feeling of isolation … most likely accompanied by embarrassment, shame, resentment, burnout, maybe some mild depression— totally not speaking from experience here.
Okay now hold on. Breathe. Please don’t crawl under your desk just yet, my dear, sweet fellow fintech dreamer. Every single person who has sought out to change this world, has had their own dreams crushed at some point. So why in the hell didn’t those inspirational fucks warn us?! Well, because no one wants to talk about it. The idea of being vulnerable and divulging those dark, uncomfortable failures (that their success is inevitably built upon) is enough to make even our heroes squirm.
Maybe you’re thinking, you’re so wrong! On the last Oprah interview she talked about overcoming several obstacles before she ever made her first billion! I don’t doubt that. I don’t want to take away from her, or anyone’s, bravery to tell part of their story. However, it always seems that when they are able to speak into existence a few of those terrifying hardships, they immediately and consistently add a giant caveat. It seems that as soon as they talk about a failure, they immediately gloss things over with how they overcame, learned lessons, annihilated all doubt. It’s as if the moment they utter the “F” word, the shock wave must be smoothed over, the attention redirected to something much more palatable.
What if, now hear me out, we stopped glossing over that shit? Like fully stop. What if we could openly share the insanity and terror of it all without having to end the story by how we “pulled ourselves up from our bootstraps” or some other fucking trite saying?
I’ve never seen it done. Because in Fintech, as in most industries, failure really is the “F” word. It’s a word that you, at times, have to do mental gymnastics to try and make palatable. Sure, perhaps you can drop it in passing to add flair to a speech, but even then, don’t take it too far. And for goodness’ sake, if you do drop the F bomb, make sure there aren’t any children in the room.
And yet … And yet … Failure is required if we ever hope to push the envelope forward. The road to success is paved with embarrassment and failure. You never get to see all the years of hard work and pivots that create an “over-night” success. Failure is a critical piece of the equation, and we need to cherish it as such. However, when we only celebrate and reward outcomes (specifically successful outcomes), we halt any notion of true innovation, because we disincentivize risk taking.
When we hyper-focus on results we forget a core indicator of the innovative process… the process! Great leaders instill and reward the foundations and when executed correctly those foundations are the requirements to victory. Great coaches reward grit, endurance, perseverance. The best teachers applaud critical thinking and applied theory. Innovative managers use how well the principles of innovation are applied as their guideposts for evaluating performance. Things like brainstorming, strategic prototyping, iterations based on customer feedback, etc.
In my free-time, I teach a class in Entrepreneurship through the University of Missouri, and we focus a lot on what failure means, and how to fail properly. In our world of instant gratification, it’s getting harder and harder to embrace failure and stay the course. I tell my students, don’t you dare be a quitter, be a failure. Fail forward.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that
counts.” – Winston Churchill
Here’s my rallying cry. We need to talk about failure sans caveats. We need to accept it as a rite of passage and a stepping stone to success. BECAUSE. IT. IS. Additionally, we need to smack anyone who wants to beleaguer or blackball someone for showcasing honesty in their journey.
Entrepreneurs are nearly twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general public. And remember the U.S. is suffering from a mental health crisis already. While it isn’t a cure-all, promoting sincere vulnerability and providing a safe space to share our collective struggle is an imperative part of the solution.
So please stop fake smiling at every opportunity. And for the love of God stop reflexively saying “Everything is going great! How are you?” … who are you trying to fool here, really.
For one tiny moment, let’s just lament in the fact that this is, at times, really hard. Let’s talk about how we have all failed without having known what’s next. That we’re all just making it up as we go, trying our best to iterate and innovate and make this world a bit better than we found it. Most importantly, let’s remind ourselves that we don’t have to constantly be inspired or inspiring, if we can just simply be seen for our entire journey.