To hear Soon Yu tell it, success is way overrated: failure is where it’s really at.
He ought to know, because he’s failed often enough to make a career – or several careers – out of it. Before he found his niche as an in-demand consultant and keynote speaker, Mr Yu, 52, endured more than his fair share of disappointment as an entrepreneur. But he learned from his mistakes and always bounced back.
In fact, he became such an expert at failure and what to do with it that he now makes a living giving talks about it. In the highly competitive, often-confusing world of business, Mr Yu has been the go-to guy for companies hoping to turn failure into a competitive advantage.
Mr Yu inherited his can-do attitude from his parents, immigrants to the United States from Taiwan. He was a classic overachiever and, armed with an MBA from Stanford, had dreams of making a name – and fortune – for himself. He enjoyed initial success in the retail industry, becoming a successful executive at California-based Clorox, a manufacturer of consumer household products, then left at 31 to start a company that sold products to people suffering from allergies.
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The venture failed spectacularly and Mr Yu reached a low point in his life, even taking a job as a retail assistant at Crate & Barrel to help make ends meet. He shopped at discount store Costco and became adept at cooking cheap frozen chicken breasts. Eventually, he rediscovered his A-game, attracting venture capital to fund his ideas for startups – still encountering more downs than ups along the way. He then landed a job at apparel giant VF Corporation, serving as global vice-president of innovation, but left the security of a high-paying job to strike out on his own. His book Iconic Advantage, due to be published early next year, stresses the importance of reinventing iconic products instead of creating totally new ones.
What is it about you and failure?
There’s one ugly truth about failure: it sucks. When it happens, it’s very disappointing; you go through all these negative emotions, embarrassment, confusion, frustration, denial. It’s not something you would wish on anybody, yet it’s led to a lot of great things in my life. It’s like if you don’t give children a chance to take risks, skin their knees, they won’t fully grasp the learning that comes from what I call the hero’s journey. It continues with you wrestling with your personal demons but once you process it all and reach a higher plateau, the feeling is so much sweeter. Sometimes as humans we’re not heroic – we spend time trying to shortcut the processing of failure. I always ask people: name a time you failed, and what did you learn from it? It’s all about how self-aware they are.
Your corporate speeches focus a lot on failed ventures and the art of picking yourself up after the humbling experiences.
Failure is a difficult thing, but it’s necessary for us to become more well-rounded. A lot of failure is wasted because we’re a society that likes to short-circuit the pain – to really learn from failure you have to wallow in it. Here’s Dirty Secret #1: I failed a lot more than I ever succeeded. Then I asked myself, what’s the value of failure? Dirty Secret #2: Don’t play the blame game – before you blame others, look at yourself in the mirror. Confucius said, make sure you stay honest with yourself; we can make progress only after taking that step. Nowadays people are into shortcuts, making our world frictionless. We’ve lost touch with how to deal with adversity.
How can you turn failure into a competitive advantage, a personal calling card?
If you’re an innovator, you will experience more failure because you’re at the cutting edge – you signed up for this. If you did, don’t waste the opportunity to learn from it. How can losing face lead to a competitive advantage? First, get smart, then innovate yourself and finally become compelling. Identify blind spots, stop repeating the same mistakes. Failure in small, frequent doses can be beneficial in helping you to evolve as a prototype. Steve Jobs had many epic failures – he took big risks, had big failures. Without them, he wouldn’t have gone on the hero’s journey. Harness failure and use it as an opportunity to tell a better story.
What is the big takeaway from your book Iconic Advantage?
It’s about how iconic brands became iconic and stayed iconic. The book looks at why some companies (like Apple, Nike, BMW) are good at it – they tend to innovate the old, build on their current strengths. For example, the Nike Air shoe began as a failure. The concept of air pockets in a product was originally invented by a Nasa scientist for a helmet. It didn’t work out but he shopped the idea around and Nike bought it. These companies take shiny new ideas, apply them to their most iconic product and make it bigger. Don’t just milk your cash cows, you butter them up.
Your pivotal moments are more about failure than success.
If you’re a person who has never failed, you’re boring. When I interviewed with 30 others for the job at VF, I was by far the biggest failure – and I think that’s why I got the job. I’ve had my own epic failures. In truth, who doesn’t want to live a more epic life? Of course, it comes with certain costs and certain rewards. To me, that’s a rich life, not when you die and all everyone wants to know about is your will – when it’s about lawyers and not your friends, that’s not for me. Remember, when you fail, fail bigly.
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