Learning from failure: The Power of Letting Go

Light through the field

We hold onto things, too many things. Closets full of clothes we never wear, relationships and jobs that don’t bring out the best in us, food in our kitchen that have passed their expiration dates, and the list goes on. Often, we don’t know why we hang on so tightly even when it’s clear it’s not good for us, or when we instinctively know it’s time to move on. We end up building even stronger attachments, which makes it that much harder to get to the next chapter.

A few years ago I founded my first startup, a consumer food brand called Asulia Foods. It happened after some life changing “A-ha!” moments, as Oprah would say, and a layoff from a finance job. I have always believed in the power of food to heal our bodies and our environment, to nourish our souls, and to connect people regardless of our differences. We all eat. I went from spread-sheeting numbers, to learning everything I could about the food industry, to launching a brand onto retail store shelves and shipping product nationwide. I loved the challenge. For the first time, I wasn’t trying to prove myself and waiting for someone to give me permission to take the plunge. I simply just did it. Whatever my startup needed, I made it happen. No ifs, ands, or buts. Every day was different; every day was exciting. Yet, alongside the highs, I also experienced the most profound sense of loneliness, self doubt, anxiety, and fear. Still, I hung on, clinging to this wisdom from my mom: “You don’t know what sweetness tastes like if you’ve never tasted bitterness.”

“It is fashionable to romanticise entrepreneurs. But reality can be as romantic as chewing glass. First-time founders have the job security of zero-hour contract workers, the money worries of chronic gamblers and the social life of hermits.” The Economist

Despite believing that the ability to adapt and pivot are critical to every business, I also came to realize that there are times we need to take a step back. The life I had created around my startup wasn’t what I wanted, and had taken an enormous toll on my health and personal life. I couldn’t sleep. I had panic attacks. I didn’t feel like myself.

I started to question my motivation, even though I had a strong and personal “Why” for beginning my startup journey. One of my strengths is perseverance. I do whatever it takes to get things done, and I have a high level of resilience. However, the flip side is that it’s hard for me to let go even when it’s time.

On a July morning two years after launching my startup, I woke up crying so uncontrollably, I couldn’t physically peel myself out of bed. I grabbed the closest T-shirt to wipe away my cascading tears. At the time, I had just gone through a breakup with the man I was supposed to marry; my absentee father had just passed away;  I had just joined a competitive startup accelerator program; and I was working hard to grow my startup. My objective for that day was to go to investor meetings that I had worked diligently to secure. I told myself I didn’t get this far to only come this far. So I pulled it together, threw on some lipstick, and willed myself to keep going. I was so out of it following my last meeting that I took a wrong step out of a coffee shop—broke my left foot in two places. It was a wake-up call. My normal startup life wasn’t so normal after all. I was utterly failing in self-care, and could self destruct if I didn’t do anything about it. Tick tock, tick tock.

While I made some changes in my life and sought help where I needed it, another year passed before I actually took steps to wind down my startup. I already knew, a few months after my injury, that it was time to let go. Besides the unhealthy lifestyle, something didn’t feel right. My business wasn’t my north star, but I couldn’t bring myself to it let go. It was my baby, and I had formed a strong attachment to it. I saw it for what was it and all it could be, imperfections and boundless possibilities. I feared disappointing my supporters; I was constantly struggling to allow myself to step on the brakes. I was afraid of being judged, but the truth was that everyone was busy with their own lives, and not paying such close attention to what I was doing.

There is power in letting go. It gives us freedom to create space to allow good things to come into our lives. If your hands are full, you can’t be blessed with more. As humans, we are self-interested, and it takes a lot of work to remind ourselves that it’s not always about us. I love the question David Brooks asks: “What does the world need from me?”

Failure is part of the human experience. None of us are born knowing exactly what we should do with our lives. It can take a lifetime to figure it out. Seth Godin thinks we should let go of finding our calling. I agree. It’s through trying, failing, and allowing time to impart its wisdom that we can truly become who we are meant to be. Van Gogh didn’t decide one day that he was going to become an impressionistic painter. He painted because he loved it. He had to paint. Our purpose and calling find us. Eventually, everything comes together.

In the meantime, there are things we can do while we wait. Here are 5 things I’ve done to heal from my experience, to learn from it, and then to let go. You might find these tips helpful.

  1. Forgive: Who do you need to make a phone call to and say: “Hello, it’s me. I’m calling to tell you I’m sorry. I’d like to find a way to let go of the past. Can we talk?” Maybe it’s not another person, but yourself?
  2. Listen: What is your instinct telling you? Is it telling you it’s time to move on from a job, a relationship? Take a break from your regular environment. For me it’s in being in nature, taking a yoga class, or mediation.
  3. Experience: Make regular time to do things you love, things you lose yourself in, things that make you come alive, that speak to your soul and heart. I cook, go hiking, and snap photos. What do you do?
  4. Affirm: Let go of hurtful words. Are you telling yourself things you’d never say to your best friend or loved one? Words become actions. When I catch myself wanting to say something negative, I reframe the words.
  5. Learn: What are you curious about? What have you always wanted to learn? What is holding you back? I have a long list of things I’m learning, mostly all in the creative realm.

Letting go for me meant letting go of my startup and taking proactive steps to heal, to learn, and to let go of my self expectations and fears. It’s a constant process, not a one-day retreat or seminar. I have to practice each and every day to not let my fears overshadow who I am and the things I want to do.

I studied positive psychology for a year to equip myself with science-backed tools for a lifestyle rooted in wholeness and well-being. I’m still figuring it out, but what I know is true about myself has never changed. I believe in the power of food, business, and entrepreneurship as vehicles of positive change for a better world. I love creating art, cooking new things in the kitchen, traveling, and taking photos. I care deeply about women and girls and how we treat our environment. I love bringing out the best in others, and want to inspire others to find the connection to their best self, to let what’s within shine from the inside out.

When people ask me what I do now, I say whatever it takes, because it’s true. I do a lot of different things that don’t fit into a box. I don’t want to fit in and and be like everybody else. I don’t know if I’ll found another startup, but what I can do is work on becoming a better person each day, try new things, fail, and let go when it’s time. It’s OK. Perfection is overrated.

Uncertainty is part of life, but I know who I am, what I stand for, and what I love doing. I’m grateful for today and every day. This moment will never happen again. Dream big, as many dreams as you want. Put action into the things that tug at your heart. Don’t go it alone. Find like-minded people and community to support you.

“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” ~Paulo Coelho

sue.liang

Leave a Reply Text

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *