The Utter Relief of Total Failure
Perspective from the Other Side of Hell
I recently stumbled on a story on Medium by a writer I hadn’t previously come across and it stopped me dead in my tracks.
There are often pieces by excellent writers on this platform, known or otherwise, that give me pause for thought, make me smile or even bring a tear to my eye, but this was the first time something broadsided me in such a fashion as to almost physically tear into my brain and emotional state.
That piece was entitled ‘Finding Perspective When Your Business is Failing’ written by a lady called Madeline Harding.
It struck me so hard because I understood immediately what she was going through and how she was feeling.
I knew because I, too, had been there.
Those feelings of despair ringing through her words, her glimmers of hope for the future that she hoped were not an illusion and her admission of her addiction to finding money to fund that failing business whatever the cost. Those sentences bought the same feelings back to me in a flood of emotions I hadn’t experienced since those dark days had ended just a few short years ago.
It’s an indescribable combination of hopelessness, stress, uncertainty and pressure that no human should be subjected to. It affects your self worth, your ego, your very reason for being. If you’ve never been there, it’s impossible to explain to you succinctly in a way that will make you understand fully.
And yet, really, this is only about money. And money, as they say, only becomes important when you don’t have any.
I made a supportive comment on her article, moved on and wrote some stories as usual, but, at the back of my mind, I kept returning to her plight and what she was going through. I wanted to help her, tell her it was all going to be OK, and that the dark days would end.
Eventually, I decided the best way could do that was would be to write a piece, this piece, from the other side of the hell she, and no doubt many others, were going through. From there, I hoped I could throw a rope and pull her and her family out, if not physically, then metaphorically. The view is clearer from here, the path obvious when looked back on.
But, from where she is now, she simply can’t see it. And nor could I.
In my own case, the reasons for my failure in retail were as much about my own personality as they were about having prime retail properties in the middle of a recession. The details of how this happened would probably make a great story in itself, but that’s one for another day.
All that matters for now was that I found myself with three very high rent town center retail units in the middle of the credit crunch, with sales dropping off a cliff, 23 employees and some very unhappy shareholders. ‘Pressure’ wasn’t the word.
I remember distinctly watching it unfold in front of me and feeling helpless. I could do something about some of the variable costs, but the fixed ones were as devastating as they were inescapable. My name was on the dotted line for years to come and I’d just become a father for the second time. I had responsibilities. Lots of them.
It was this combination of responsibilities that forced me to carry on, even though common sense said it was a daft thing to do. I just had to provide for my young family, I had to make sure the bills were paid, I had to try and keep the shareholders happy, especially as a significant portion were friends and colleagues and the amounts involved were very large. I couldn’t find an escape, nor did it seem like a viable option anyway. It was my mess, it was my responsibility.
The walls felt like they were closing in. I was avoiding paying the bills in the company until the very last second possible, and only when things got very nasty. At home, we skimped on everything, downgraded cars, sold off anything we could find and tried to live the most frugal of existence. My long-suffering partner encouraged me, borrowed money for me, and promised to stand by me whatever happened. She was true to her word. She still is.
But despite being lucky enough to have stability at home through such an ordeal, I could see where it was going. The amount of money needed to rescue the business was growing by the day and I just couldn’t raise it fast enough, let alone deal with the issues that were causing it. I cashed in endowments, sold all remaining equities and even mortgaged the house that I owned, almost 100% free and clear, using the last of the perfect credit rating that I was about to lose for several years.
It still wasn’t enough, and I knew I was doing no more than delaying the inevitable.
The stress had created other problems, emotional and mental ones. I had completely lost my drive and sense of purpose. What was the point of getting up in the morning and slogging through another pointless, desperate day? I began to sleep in until late, turning off the phones until I could muster enough strength to face the barrage of messages chasing for money. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.
How could I, with all the advantages I’d both been given and earned, have got this so wrong?
I’d stopped opening the post. I only came alive after 6 pm when I knew creditors couldn’t call me and spent the evening drinking heavily to numb the pain of being a total failure and as a way to sleep at night. I withdrew from everyone, but where family events were unavoidable I put on an act and avoided paying the bill, something I hated myself for, has always been the one ‘flashing the cash’ in better times only a few years prior.
Then, as the bailiffs started to come, a trickle at first, but later a flood, it totally consumed what remained of my mental state and our lives. Everything now revolved around money, either saving it, avoiding paying it out, or raising more. This was the addiction phase that Madeline referred to in her work. And it’s real, very real.
One beautiful sunny afternoon I was walking down a High Street towards one of the premises my company occupied to meet, for the umpteenth time, the bailiffs who had arrived to strip it out if the outstanding rent wasn’t paid. The fact that I was actually on first name terms with them emphasizes just how common their visits had become. I was tired, depressed and emotional.
I’d had enough. I just wanted it to stop, whatever the cost.
I distinctly remember the thought of suicide crossed my mind at that moment. I can remember exactly where and when it was. I’d always been strong mentally, determined, utterly indefatigable, and yet it had somehow made it into my consciousness for consideration. I could make it stop anytime I wanted and, even better, I was heavily insured. My family would be taken care of for life.
I’d reached rock bottom. There was literally nowhere else I could go.
Admitting this is not easy to do. Perhaps it’s the relative anonymity that the keyboard offers, but, only for that moment, I understood why someone could do it. I immediately felt the weight lift as if it had already been done. For just the very slightest of seconds, I was free again. And what a feeling that was.
Of course, I managed to gather enough strength to batter that thought back into the depths of my mind and lock it away in an impenetrable place or this article would never have been written, and my children would have grown up without a father — a thought that haunts me — but it did mark the beginning of the end of the ordeal.
This is the point at which the decision is made, when the losses are no longer relevant to the possible outcomes, when you finally accept the consequences of failure and when you finally stand up and say “I have failed and am not afraid anymore.”
From that very moment on, clarity will come. Whether you think this is a spiritual thing, karma related or just plain logic caused by the blinkers of pressure being removed, it doesn’t really matter. Just know that in ways you can’t possibly grasp right now, the path will become clear.
You’re not running from failure anymore. You’re running directly into it and you welcoming it. You’re going to let it embrace you, smother you and show that damn bully who has held that power over you that your days of being fearful are over. It might cost you a lot. It might cost you everything, but it ends.
It will control you NO MORE.
For me, when I truly reached this point, the one thing that stuck in my mind — that I hadn’t even remotely expected — was the complete and utter sense of relief that washed over me, almost physically through my body. It didn’t matter that I had months of paperwork, hassle, people to face down and public admissions to make, it was already over. The rest was just, well, admin.
The uncertainty was gone. I knew now what it would cost me, what I had to accept as loss and how, now at the age of 40 and with far less net worth than I’d had as a man ten years younger, I could rebuild. And rebuild better. And more wisely.
I didn’t even care if I was going to have to stack shelves in a supermarket for a few months or even longer. My pride may have caused me a problem with this initially, but not anymore. It was worth it to be free and to only have to worry about which way up the cans are supposed to go. Of course, some people in a job like that dream of being free from it, but for me, oh, the freedom of doing it. Dare I even imagine it?
The shape of the future was still uncertain, but now I was facing it without fear and new confidence.
I. Was. Free.
It’s now been several years since the collapse of my business. I managed to avoid bankruptcy, keep the house and iron out deals with creditors which was quite a feat as, by the endgame, we were dealing with enormous figures. Ironically, I think it was the very size of those figures that gave me the confidence to negotiate. After all, if you owe the bank £500 that’s you’re problem, but if you owe the bank £500,000, that’s their problem. They have to talk to you sensibly or they’ll get nothing. I found I had all the bargaining chips, quite by accident.
I still have many years of payments to pay the debt back completely, but paid it will be. I am a man of my word if nothing else. However, they are manageable, interest-free and locked into a contract. I even have a perfect credit rating again.
Even better, I managed to salvage some of the business from the wreckage, rebuild on a smaller scale and sell for a good profit later on.
And whilst those days are now a distant memory, it’s only recently I’ve been able to talk about it objectively and publicly. Yes, I failed, but I learned along the way that it doesn’t so much mean the end of your life, but the beginning of a new chapter. Almost all successful businessmen have failed, many of them more than once. In fact, my own failure — and perhaps yours — was minor in comparison.
I was also amazed to discover another unexpected benefit — respect. People who were going through difficult times contacted me to seek help and advice. People who had never failed later told me how they admired what I’d done, applauded my tenacity and wanted an insight into an arena they were far too afraid to enter. Failure, it appears, is just as appealing to people on some levels as success.
But above all, understand that the dark days will end. Understand that whatever your mistakes were and how much you blame yourself, there really is a way out if you're ready to accept it. You’ve already proved you can take a risk, you already understand more of what life is about that most people ever will and you’re in a club whose members include the very, very best of us throughout all of history.
Now grab that rope I’m offering you. Look me in the eye and trust me when I say “It’s going to be OK”.
Special thanks to Madeline Harding for her permission to use her name and story in this article.
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