On failure, Willy Wonka, and what every entrepreneur understands (that no one else does)

What if it doesn’t work out?

It will.

But what if it doesn’t?

It has to.

But what if it doesn’t?

I will make it work out.

But what if it doesn’t?

I wanted to smack him.

We were in a café in the oldest part of Madrid. Seated on a terrace, midway up a broad cobblestone staircase, red potted geraniums spilling from wrought iron balconies overhead, powerful Spanish sun on our shoulders, jasmine and olive oil scenting the air, and the ever present rumble of laughter and conversation that pervades a place where cars are an inconvenience, strolling is a nightly ritual, and people consider the plazas their living rooms.

I was blissful.

He was worried.

Nine months before, I had left New York City. Relinquishing my well paying job and terrific Upper East Side duplex (oh yes!). Forsaking my friends, my family, and my brilliant a cappella group (no, I’m NOT kidding).

Selling off everything I owned on Craigslist: my bed, my first grown-up couch, and the cool new flat screen just bought to replace the 14 inch tv that was laughed at by every date I had ever had. I had bade farewell to everything and everyone and moved to Spain.

After ages of wanting desperately, wildly, whole heartedly, to live in Madrid, after years of scheming to get a company to move me there, I had just seized created an opportunity.

And now, here I was, all by myself in Madrid.

Starting up the Spanish office of a tiny French company. A company that no one had ever heard of, with no real company website to speak of, in an industry that was brand new and completely unknown in Spain. Figuring out the market, strategy, client meetings, proposals, contracts, materials, procedures, plans, and ultimately, delivery of services-all were down to me alone. In Spanish, did I mention that?

I had bet everything on this. On myself. That I could pull this off.

And now, this old family friend had come to visit me in Madrid, wanting to know what would happen if I failed.

He wanted me to be realistic. He wanted to hear about my plan B, my back-up project, my pre-arranged fall back position.

Well, I didn’t have one.

And this was the thing he didn’t get: I didn’t need one.

Because there would be no failure. I would make it work.

Yes, absolutely, things would not go as planned, that was guaranteed. An idea wouldn’t be as good as it seemed, the market would be different than expected, the customers wouldn’t come, the project wouldn’t go as planned. But just as certain was that I would learn and adapt, figure it out and pivot.

I would not give up. I would keep working, I would keep on going and going till it worked out.

That’s what you do when you fully commit. When, instead of betting on someone else and their plans, you bet ON YOURSELF.

And another thing: having a fall back plan is a terrible idea.

My best friend had taken the leap into ex-pat entrepreneurship four years before, packing up her entire life in San Francisco, and moving to Paris to open her PR business. During her first years there, she had encountered a whole passel of Americans who were trying to make a go of it in Paris. And one by one, they disappeared back to their lives in the U.S.

Because here is the thing: they didn’t go all in. They had kept the apartment in Boston, taken a leave of absence instead of quitting, stored all their belongings instead of moving or selling them. They had a back-up plan in case Paris didn’t work out. And so they didn’t make Paris work out. Every single one of those people with a fall back plan FELL BACK.

So what am I saying to you?

There is no failure, not as long as you keep going. Going forward and sideways and slantways and longways and backways and squareways and front ways and any other ways that you can think of.

That’s right, you are a Wonkavator.

And you’re not going to plan a fall back position.

Because creating is hard. Going in a different direction than everyone else and doing it alone is HARD. And scary and frustrating and lonely. And that pre-arranged soft place to land when it gets tough would make it so very much easier to just quit.

You’re not going to cheat yourself by putting any of your time or energy into building a plan B.

You’re going to put everything you have, everything you are, into plan A, into what you truly wish to be.

And to those who ask: what if it doesn’t work out?

You are not encouraging us to be “realistic,” you are encouraging us to be scared cowed cogs in the machine less than we are.


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Wendy White - Messaging strategist for coaches & consultants

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