The Benefits of Failing


It’s fair to say that many people go through at least one season of financial difficulty sometime in their lives. It’s often part of the ladder-climbing experience when just starting out. Or it occurs between jobs, or is due to an injury or downed economy.

The season, although difficult, can actually hold forth much benefit. Call these benefits surprising silver linings, lessons learned from hard times.

About ten years ago, in my mid-30s, I officially opened my own editorial business.

Five months later, my business officially failed.

What followed was what my wife Mary Margaret and I today call “our lean season.” We weren’t poor by global standards—we still had a roof over our heads and ate three meals a day.

But by G8 standards, we were broke. We were uncertain about how to pay our bills, in danger of losing our house, and fearful and stressed about our immediate and future financial situation.

During that winter, I applied for more than 80 jobs. I went on interviews, attended job fairs, networked with business owners, and passed out copies of my résumé by the dozen.

Blame the collapse of the newspaper industry. The field was flooded with hungry, well-credentialed journalists looking for work. Time after time, the answer was no.

Today, almost a decade later, Mary Margaret and I talk with people who have experienced similar lean seasons. We have good friends, for instance, a surgeon and his wife, who tell about the few years in medical school right after their daughters were born. They lived in an apartment with rats.

This is what we learned about lean seasons from talking with others, and also from our own experience.

1.      You discover you have good friends

Some people experience financial difficulty and react by feeling embarrassed. They clam up and try to keep up appearances of financial success. 

We chose to go other direction. We openly talked about our situation with the people closest to us, seeking their emotional support and gleaning their advice.

It’s funny. Word gets around, and weird things begin to happen. Someone brought us ham. Another person fixed our car for free.

If you’re normally in the position of being self-sufficient, it can feel strange at first to receive the kindness of people in your community.

But it didn’t feel like a hand out to us. It felt like a hand up. People knew we would do it for them if needed, and it was simply our turn to receive.

2.      Your character gets shaped for the better.

I don’t look back and speak about our poor season with fondness. Those weren’t “the good old days,” and, no, I’d never want to go through that time again.

But out of that season came good. It created empathy with people who struggle financially. It created a good type of humility, a recognition that we’re all in this life-thing together.

And it created an appreciation for the simpler things of life. I remember when my wife and I were finally able to afford a $40 Costco membership. We literally whooped and gave each other high–fives.

3.      Desperation can become one of your greatest allies.

If you have a job you dislike and dream of doing something different, it can be easy to continue on year after year. You’re filled with angst, but your steady salary makes it difficult to walk away.

Desperation can provide the courage needed. The same is true if you’re flat out of work.

During our poor season, I became fearless in how I approached my job search. I’d talk to anybody, anytime, about any opening.

I’d brazenly ask people for career-oriented favors—either to be introduced their boss or to put in a good word for me about an opening.

Ultimately, my desperation propelled me to create my own job. Several months later I restarted my editorial company. And the second time around, it succeeded.

How about you?

Have you ever gone through a “lean season?” Perhaps you’re there now. What have you learned along the way?




FEAST FOR THIEVES, a novel by Marcus Brotherton

“Part Band of Brothers, part True Grit, this is the rollicking tale of a wartime hero’s fight to find his place in a post-war world.

Rich with action, Feast for Thieves is cinematic storytelling at its best.”

Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of A Higher Call

  • Joseph Villa

    We’re in that lean season right now. It’s lasted for almost two years, BUT we have never gone without anything. God has always shown up on-time and met our needs (not always our wants though). For 11 months someone anonymously paid our electric bill. I’ve learned that I can’t do everything on my own and if I trust and rely on God he’ll take care of it. I am blessed to have job I love ( I teach part-time at the community college) and I’m able to spend more time with my family.

  • Ambaa

    We’re about to go through this and I’m so scared. My husband lost his job in January and I’m on the verge of losing mine. He is retraining to be a teacher and I’m working on a publishing business, but for the next year while he is in school it is going to very tough. I try to relinquish control and trust in God, but it can be terrifying!

    • BillYeager

      Yeah, it’ll probably be better if you forgo the ‘relinquishing’ and, instead, behave like there is no God. There’s billions of poverty-stricken societies all around the world being placated by the promise of reward in the ‘afterlife’ in return for not complaining about their lot, it’s probably one of the main factors towards their ‘lot’ remaining unchanged for generation after generation. Besides, doesn’t your God do that whole ‘helping those who help themselves’ schtick? That way you can thank him when things go your way and blame yourself for not doing enough when they don’t.

  • Eddie Bryan

    I’m homeless.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Between 2001-2003 I spent two years out of work.

    We went without quite a bit to make it.

    The timeshare I owned before that was foreclosed upon and recorded incorrectly, and they’re still trying to get the maintenance fees out of me 10 years later.

    Yes, it made me more generous. Yes, I ended up a better person because of it. But I’m also far more cynical now, and I’ll never ever ever trust economists again.

  • Chie Reya

    During our financial difficulty we learn who’s our real friends and who are the people who have a heart to help financially and emotionally.

    Atlanta Pools

  • Juan Manuel Zermeño

    After going through a divorce in 2007, at the break point of the US
    economy, I am still struggling to get ahead. I was part of those who got
    rich quick and lost it all just as quick. An RV, a boat, a house, a
    timeshare. All of that plus $100k in vehicles (one leased and the other
    making payments) and not to mention all the credit card debt. It sucks.
    But after all it is said and done, I am a much happier person now. I
    learned that material things come and go. Keeping up with the Joneses is
    nothing but a joke. Unfortunately, the American culture is built this
    way. Get in debt, show off what you are able to accomplish, and not let
    your neighbor top you off. Now, I have learned to get by with the bare
    necessities, shop at thrift shops and stretch my dollar at the local 99
    cent store. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be able to afford what I
    once had. What matters the most today is that I am alive, I am healthy, I
    have a roof over my head, I have a job, and most important of all, I
    have my two sons that I share custody with their mother. I may not be
    able to take them to the river on the boat, or take “camping” trips on
    the RV, or run errands while they watch a movie on the SUV’s DVD player,
    but I have two healthy sons that I get to spend quality time with them.
    Us adults in our late 30′s grew up without iPads, iPhones or the
    internet, and somehow we made it through. Why not now when we face
    financial difficulties. I look at the people who have it worse than I,
    those who have health issues, missing 2 arms or legs or disabled on a
    wheelchair for life, and I am grateful to have the little that I have
    now and be able to still enjoy my two wonderful, healthy sons.