Book Excerpt: Confronting Failure (and Trying to Check Email While Driving)

Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book My Start-Up Life. This is from the chapter "Confronting Failure". Pre-order the book on Amazon.

"Dig in" meant, for me, "Do what it takes" to help the business. And this meant give lots of face time to people who could help Comcate overcome its woes.

Once, a couple years later, I trekked to El Dorado County in California, about a three-hour drive northeast from San Francisco—a good example of my commitment to face time. I had come to enjoy these frequent car journeys, each small town home to some newspaper or diner that can lift any tired traveler’s weary spirits.

After three hours in the car, one hour getting lost, and one hour in my target meeting, I turned around to make the three-and-a-half-hour journey home (three hours plus a half hour getting lost). I made my way to the Highway 50 west corridor, which would take me a good forty miles. Ah, a long stretch of California highway. I cruised up to 80 mph and rolled down the window. The radio that should have spit out "California Dreamin’" by The Mamas and The Papas instead gave only static.

Within twenty minutes I arrived back in radio-signal zone and figured my BlackBerry would reconnect, too. But to confirm my suspicion, I would have to first find it. With my left hand steering to keep me in the left lane, I leaned on my right buttock and with my right arm reached into my bag placed on the floor under the passenger’s seat. Where is it? I didn’t immediately find it with my hand. To give sight to my lost hand I darted my eyes down once to see if I could locate my BlackBerry in the bag next to me.
By the time I blinked my eyes back to the road, it was too late.

My car swiveled just a little to the left, hit a groove, and in only mild panic, I compensated by turning the wheel back right. By now both hands were stationed firmly on the steering wheel. A car in the right lane whizzed by me, and afraid I overcompensated, as they always warn you in driver school, I turned the steering wheel back to the left, hoping to realign in the center of my lane. But in that readjustment I hit yet another groove, this one big, a sign of the old highway on which I rode, and it rattled the car. I compensated right, then left, then right again to meet a slight curve in the road. My speed crept to 85 mph until I realized I was traveling way too fast. I slammed on the brakes, continued to swerve, and then around the next curve my car began spinning. One moment I swayed like a hammock in the wind and the next moment I was controlling maniacal helicopter wings. I did three 360s on the ground, and spun out of my lane farther left into the center divide. Forty feet of grass and shrubs separated the westbound traffic from the busy eastbound traffic. As my car spun—me gripping the wheel strongly and slamming on the brakes—I was certain I would die. This wasn’t exactly the kind of face time I planned on. I wanted face time with Comcate supporters, not with the face of the Grim Reaper.

So this is it, I thought. Now I’m going to die. At least I lived happily and did my thing. Those words immediately came to mind as my car spun, a dummy driver watching his all-too-short life being snatched away because of a reflexive urge to check his BlackBerry while driving.

As my car screeched into the center divide, I prayed it would stop moving so I wouldn’t hit oncoming traffic. I closed my eyes, my foot pressed still harder to the brake pedal. I started coughing. Dust and weeds coupled with the bitter aroma of fear and guilt produced dirtied air I didn’t want to breathe. The car stopped. I broke down, sobbing. My tears weren’t heroic but defeated. I looked at myself with a kind of scorn reserved for consequences brought onto yourself. I was helpless, sweating compulsively, shaking, trying to comprehend a near-death experience.

And then, the BlackBerry email/phone that had caused the distraction that led to my accident, rang. So it was in my bag, after all. Should I even pick it up? What does one do in this situation? I’m sitting in the middle of a center divide in a freeway with my car probably majorly messed up. Do I answer the phone? Sensibly, I didn’t pick it up. Instead, I drove the car off the highway at the next exit to examine the damage. While stopped I checked my voicemail and my emotions did their own 180: a city prospect wanted a follow-up demonstration. . . . Tomorrow! Nice!

The next day, en route to the meeting, the right front tire, which, unbeknownst to me, had been damaged in my off-road excursion, flew off my car while I was driving down the center lane of Highway 101. A police escort stopped all traffic on this major California artery, took me off the road, and called a tow truck. I never made it to the pitch.

***

Failures, obstacles, even car crashes are all part of the start-up experience. Ups and downs are the definitive indication that you are doing something entrepreneurial. If your record is spotless, then you haven’t been an entrepreneur. If the only mistakes you’ve made are on school papers or in mishandling a report in a big corporation, those aren’t spots. It’s the spots from the school of hard knocks that matter. They matter because how you confront real failure is right up there with self-confidence, drive, and luck as a critical ingredient for success.

When you are controlling your own destiny, as most entrepreneurs are, it is easy to place all the blame on yourself. Don’t. Circumstances matter and not all circumstances are within your control. For failure due to circumstances out of your control, try to learn from it and then embrace the mantra, "Shit happens." Instead, figure out what you can control and constantly reinvent it. If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway, because you won’t know when it’s broke to begin with—so preempt failure caused by complacency.

I also looked at all my failures that summer with a sense of urgency. I needed more successes. I was about to start high school and my business needed help. Fast.

4 Responses to Book Excerpt: Confronting Failure (and Trying to Check Email While Driving)

  1. Tyler Willis says:

    I am seriously looking forward to reading this book. “Dust and weeds coupled with the bitter aroma of fear and guilt produced dirtied air I didn’t want to breathe. The car stopped. I broke down, sobbing.”

    Stunning imagery. This will definitely stop me from checking my blackberry on the freeway for awhile! Although deserted stop signs are still fair game.

    Good luck on Friday! I’ll be at my nearest Barnes and Noble.

  2. dan putt says:

    I just preordered your book. The excerpts thus far have been great, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Good luck on Friday.

  3. Martha says:

    Ummm, Ben, be careful out there. Please? We really like having you around.

    BTW, I just missed being sent off to Kingdom Come while I was out riding my bike yesterday. Had a close encounter with an impaired driver.

    So, today, I’m feeling VERY lucky to be here.

  4. krishna says:

    Hey Ben, watchout. Save that wonderful narrative skill for a more pleasant experience…Good Luck for Friday !

    I would love a signed copy, with best compliments :)

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