Failures and breakthroughs – exposed, reflected, considered

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Stark Lessons From The Costa Concordia Disaster

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This is a guest blog by Eve Baxton.

Nowadays, cruise ships are widely regarded to be one of the safest forms of travel, more so than both airplanes and automobiles. Like with all forms of travel however, when an unfortunate disaster does strike, it usually provides stark lessons for the future – prompting new safety procedures, policies and changes in law to avoid the same ever happening again.

Perhaps the most profound maritime example of this was in 1912 with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Since the disaster, which claimed the lives of over 1,500 people, swift changes were made within Maritime law in regards to passenger safety; namely, providing enough lifeboats for all on-board. An obvious safety precaution it would seem, but human error can still find a way – as the sinking of the Costa Concordia earlier this year also demonstrated.

Around 9:45, on the evening of the 13th of January, the Costa Concordia struck a rock just off the eastern shore of Islo Del Giglio, on the western coast of Italy, tearing a 50 metre gash on the left side of the hull. Parts of the engine room immediately began to flood and having lost power, the ship drifted back towards the shore of Giglio, where it grounded and began to sink on its starboard (right) side (otherwise known as ‘listing’) – eventually rendering the lifeboats on that side unusable. Instead of being evacuated within 30 minutes of the abandon ship announcement (as Maritime Law dictates) it took over six hours for all surviving passengers to make it off the ship, despite the close proximity to shore and calm sea. The disaster resulted in the deaths of thirty people, with another two missing and presumed dead.

Both the captain, Francesco Schettino, and Costa Cruises received heavy criticism for the disaster and loss of life which could’ve been avoided had multiple safety violations not been made and protocol been better adhered to. Like the Titanic, and other more recent maritime disasters (such as the MV Le Joola in 2002 and the MS al-Salam Boccaccio 98 in 2006, killing over 4000 and 900 people respectively) the sinking of the Concordia has prompted multiple changes in maritime law.

The Cause

The sinking was a direct result of the Concordia moving off its designated route, to within 150 metres close of the shore, in a manoeuver known as a ‘salute’ or ‘showboating’, a sail-by for promotional purposes. Most if not all cruise liners perform these manoeuvers, which by their nature have the potential to be dangerous, but are safe if they’re properly navigated. This one however was instead scheduled to take place a few days previous, but was cancelled due to bad weather. It was claimed by crew members that Schettino, deviated from a GPS navigated route past the shore in order to make this salute; which ultimately led to the Concordia’s collision.

Abandoning Ship

With too many of the hull compartments breached with water to keep the ship afloat (in such a way that mirrored the fate of the Titanic) and its sinking inevitable, fatalities still could’ve been avoided. After the initial impact and power had been lost, frightened passengers were told that there had been a power failure and not to worry. Once the extent of the situation was established, passengers were eventually told to get put on their life jackets and to go to their muster stations. However, illustrating the lack of direction and communication amongst the Concordia’s crew, a crew member was filmed telling passengers that all was well and to go back to their cabins, just 30 minutes before the abandon ship announcement was made. When it eventually was, the crew were reluctant to lower lifeboats, almost an hour before the ship began to list making them impossible to deploy thereafter. Consequently many passengers were left stranded on the ship, whilst some made it to shore on lifeboats, others being helped by locals, and others attempting to swim to shore. The captain broke protocol by leaving the ship whilst his passengers were still on-board. The evacuation efforts went on until 4:46 am.

The Changes in Law

Perhaps the most prominent change in maritime law prompted by the Costa Concordia is that all cruise liners must now hold safety drills for passengers before the ship even leaves the dock. Previously, it had to be held within the first 24 hours of setting sail. In the Costa Concordia’s case, this drill was held within the first 24 hours for new passengers, but of the 4,252 passengers, 696 people who boarded the ship at Civitavecchia had not been briefed on safety procedures, with the drill scheduled for the next day. This naturally caused a lot of confusion and panic when passengers were called to the muster stations.

Other procedures under review include the way in which crew take the muster. Amidst panic during an actual disaster, or during a routine drill which holidaying passengers may not take seriously (or pay attention to) the accuracy of calling out names and ticking off lists comes into question – especially on large cruise liners with thousands of passengers. Royal Caribbean Cruises have adopted a more effective method on two of their cruise ships. Both Oasis and Allure of the Seas (two of the largest cruise liners in the world) have a far more accurate method in which the crew scan passenger’s key cards, allowing them to determine who is present in a much swifter, less chaotic fashion. Another possible change is the addition of more life jackets in public areas. With the power cut on the Costa Concordia, dark conditions made it difficult for passengers to go back to their cabins to retrieve their life jackets, more so for recently boarded passengers unfamiliar with the ships layout. Royal Caribbean Cruises again have been quite innovative with their solutions, handing out lifejackets at the muster stations instead.

Countless other regulations, precautions and procedures are also being reviewed, with staff training also being reassessed. The nature of disasters such as the sinking of the Costa Concordia, or even the Titanic, are so often made up of one initial incident, mistake or otherwise, which doesn’t necessarily have to pose a threat to human life. What does pose a threat however is when the correct procedures are not adhered to, or are ineffective, causing more mistakes to be made and turning something preventable into a disaster. Maritime law has continued to push for the highest standards to protect everyone who goes on a cruise, with each (albeit statistically rare) disaster over the years shedding light on areas that need improvement; having a large impact on the safety regulations, precautions and procedures of today. These all serve to protect passengers, whatever the situation. And perhaps it’s because we learn so much from the past that a cruise ship still remains one of the safest ways to travel.

Written by Hayk

November 10, 2012 at 10:22 am

Personal (almost-fail) story: what climbing can teach about life and business

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Let me start by stating the obvious: humans are irrational.

Let me give just one illustration of our irrationality. Climbing. Why do we climb? Some mountains have picturesque and pleasant landscapes, forests or flowery fields. Some happen to have spectacular views from top when weather conditions allow. Apart from those few – and they are in relative minority – serious mountain climbing (anything above 4,000m and even many lesser ones) implies significant effort and investment; rewards, i.e. the usual goals of reaching the top and view from the top, are usually less than what we expect.

How do I know? I climbed a number of peaks in European Alps including the highest one in mainland Europe, Mont-Blanc. And only few weeks ago, I came back from Tanzania, where I climbed Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro, consisting of three volcanic cones, is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, rising 4,600 meters from base to summit. Of three volcanic cones, Kibo is active and can erupt again any time (most recent volcanic activity registered 200 years ago). Kibo’s peak, Uhuru (“freedom“ in Swahili), is the highest (5,895m) peak of Kilimanjaro. Climbing Kilimanjaro is easy and requires no technical climbing or mountaineering experience, the biggest challenge being body’s ability to acclimatize to its high altitude. Unsurprisingly, most fatalities are caused from improper acclimatization and altitude sickness rather than falls. Only an average of 70% of climbers ever make it to the top.

Many who climbed Kilimanjaro will tell you one thing if you ask them about the experience: the last day ascent to the peak is rough (by any of the routes) but quite unrewarding in terms of view as once you reach around 5,600m height, it almost flattens (at least via Coca-Cola route). For the remaining 300m or so, it feels like walking in a field with occasional boulders on the way. The only way you know you reached Uhuru is when you see a green plate that says you reached the top of Africa.

My guide Loi (who has nine years of experience climbing in Africa) and I started off almost the last ones from the Kibo base camp. Sunrise was still far off, and I didn’t feel much delight or happiness. I felt cold (temperature hovered between  -15C and -20C), exhausted (our cook forgot to put with us food) but nonetheless satisfied.

So, why do we climb? To me – and to the alpinism greats such as Reinhold Messnerclimbing is a way to create oneself, explore one’s boundaries and uncover ones hidden characteristics. This claim is not only valid for individuals but also companies (especially startups), as their activities and vision can easily be paralleled with a climb towards their own “peak.”

That last leg from the Kibo base camp (about 4,800m) to Uhuru peak (5,895m) is the most testing part of the trip for anyone. The ascent usually starts at midnight. Many don’t even make it out of the Kibo base camp as altitude sickness, nausea and headaches sent many aspiring climbers to toilettes and kept them huddled inside their sleeping bags. Once started, climbers face a steep (450) slope of slippery pebbles and sand. Guides impose a snail-pace on climbers because of steepness of the slope, high altitude, low (between -5C and -10C at Kibo the base camp) temperature and whipping winds. The normal speed on that slope is about 500m/h (distance covered by walking up, not altitude). Trying to go faster usually results in panting, nausea and exhaustion, as 5000m is the altitude at which the density of oxygen is twice as less as at level 0, and it is impossible to breathe only with nose as the inhaled amount of oxygen is insufficient (either you breathe both with your mouth and nose or you can take tablets of Diamox which increase oxygen intake and circulation in bloodstream).

Despite the adapted snail-pace, Loi and I started overtaking many small groups. Normal practice was of walking for 15-20mins and taking a short break, allowing the body to acclimatize and rest. During the first three hours, we took only two short breaks, one when I had to take off a pullover which was making me sweat, and second when Loi needed to take a piss. We “raced,“ as one English climber described while he and his guide tried to keep up with us.

From the beginning, I was being drained of energy fast, not least because I was burning lot of energy breathing with my mouth and nose. Realizing I was loosing much energy, I tried to minimize all distractions that could result in further energy lose. Many climbers were constantly looking up or down, checking out how others were doing and spying for any potentially nice view, although it was dark and thus nothing much to see. One could also hear climbers talk to each other, as they were tightly lined up one behind another and walking up slowly. While talking wasn’t in itself a bad thing, it consumed energy. Loi and I neither looked around nor talked much before reaching the first milestone, Gelman’s point (about 5,600m).

That relatively short slot of slope between 4,800m and 5,600m was the most trying for me (and I guess for others as well).  As I had too many layers of clothes on me from the start, I started sweating profusely barely 15mins into the ascent. Our first stop was when I had to take out a layer of clothing, already wet. The feeling of cold from inside never vanished, while I was struggling with my bleeding nose and dry mouth, inhaling as much air as possible. My eyes were set on the feet of Loi who was few centimeters ahead of me. Without realizing it, we overtook all other groups and our longest break – 10 minutes – was shortly before the Gelman’s point. I was utterly exhausted, and at this point had to have some hot water and energy food (cooks usually put Snickers, pieces of chocolate, peanuts or any other energy source and a thermos with hot water). Realizing that our cook forgot to put any provisions with us, Loi dug up four small cookies from his pocket. I had two. Exhaustion didn’t diminish because cookies didn’t help. Once we reached Gelman’s point, we realized we didn’t have much time before both of us became inexorably exhausted. We marched on. Our ascent became increasingly difficult as the temperature dropped even further, and winds became even stronger.

We had to stop every 10mins for a breath. When we reached the second milestone, Stella’s point (about 5,700m), I sat on a piece of rock and was ready to lay down there and then. By then, I stopped feeling cold – all I wanted was to put myself in a horizontal position and close my eyes. Loi realized that we had to move on, otherwise we would freeze to death on that altitude. With an enormous effort of will, we continued to march on. The whole ascent was turning into a rough test of my physical and mental stamina. I became so drained of energy that 15mins before we reached the summit, I dropped onto a piece of rock and was unable to move. Loi, realizing how difficult it became for me to continue moving, try to give me psychological boost, promising we had only 15mins to reach the summit.  I had to force myself to stand up and walk. Last few hundred meters, to give myself more confidence, I started loudly saying to myself “Hayk you can make it; focus on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other and you will make it.“

About 15mins later, upon seeing a green plate a few dozen meters ahead, I asked Loi what it was. At that point I was already having hard time uttering words. Loi turned to me and responded, “we still have another 5mins.“ Luckily, he was joking – to me didn’t seem funny at all at that moment. He came up  and hugged me congratulating and saying we did it. I slumped onto the pedestal on which the green plate was planted, claiming we were on top of Africa. I sat down with my back to it. Loi asked for my camera, which was in the pocket of one of my pants. I refused. He insisted – I again refused. I told him if I as much as unzipped my pants, exposing even a tiny bit of my body, I would freeze to death. He took my two hands in his hands, only realizing they were almost limp. He didn’t insist any further.

We promptly started the descent, without taking any pictures or getting a good view from the highest point in Africa. It was cold (between -15C  and -20C) and dark (5am – sunrise came about 6am), and we had to make our way back despite a perceived impossibility of walking further. Shortly after we launched ourselves back to the base, I realized something. There was no one at the peak when we arrived. This meant that we were the first to arrive to the peak. This thought had a much-needed psychological effect on me. Although we started out late and didn’t revitalize our energy stock due to absence of food and hot water, we made it to the top and did so faster than anyone. This thought gave me much-needed force for the way down.

It was only after we passed Gelman’s point and found ourselves on the steep slope that Loi got me to take out my camera and take a shot of the two of us, still in darkness, dead-tired but happy. He was no less exhausted, but having climbed Kilimanjaro extensively during the last nine years, he was bearing it better than me, my last significant ascent (with some funny adventures on the way down) being 11 years ago on Mont-Blanc.

We made it safely back to the Kibo base, and I had a serious talk with our cook whom I told we almost didn’t make it because of his negligence. As we continued our descent from the Kibo base, we met many climbers on their way up who would ask for advise and tips. We invariably warned them about the last leg and necessity of having energy food and hot water.

Now back to companies. Their ”climb“ is interesting and usually more challenging at the beginning of their existence, or in what we call a “startup“ stage. It is at this stage that many companies create or find their core around which the later growth cristalizes. It is at this stage where many of startups stumble, fall and never recover. Startup stage of a company is thus essential, and it is important to understand how to ”climb” it in order to attain the stated goals and vision.

By an interesting coincidence, I happen to work with a visionary and ambitious startup called Jornal @Verdade. Founded in 2008 by a budding entrepreneur Erik Charas with a grand vision of changing the way information is created and shared and ultimate goal of changing the hearts and minds of Mozambicans, this news agency focuses on grassroots aspects of social and economic development. By having its main target group of readers amongst the most underprivileged and dispossessed, @Verdade offers information, education and aspiration to those who would otherwise go without.

Drawing parallels, equally applicable to individuals and startups, below is what I learnt – and advise others to apply – from both climbing and being exposed to startups in Africa:

  1. When setting up for a journey or a goal, it is important to have an objective which is far and high but attainable;
  2. Once the goal is set, break it into stages (and corresponding mini-objectives in each stage) and stay focused on mini-objectives in each stage;
  3. After reaching each mini-objective, acclimatize yourself or, in other words, get used, to it before moving on – moving on too quickly might become harmful and counter-productive;
  4. When setting up for a goal, know what to have (skills, equipment, etc.) and take with you for each specific part of the trip and leave behind what is NOT necessary;
  5. Ask advise from those you meet along the way, and especially value advise from those who have already “made it“ (to the peak or reached a goal);
  6. The ascent’s objective is its final destination or goal, but having fun and benefiting from the ascent itself (by attaining and rejoicing each mini-objective) is as, if not more, important at each stage than reaching the final destination.

In merely four years, @Verdade became the most read and known newspaper in Mozambique. And while it continues plunging upwards, it has still a long way to go. Its ascent is steep and it has all the currents (political, economic and social) lined up against it. It continues to move on and, at times, like any other human being or startup, needs an encouragement and support as it stumbles and falls. @Verdade’s strength resides in a strong belief of its staff in the value of what @Verdade set out to do and its resolve to achieve every stage of the set goals. It is this relentless drive towards its goals coupled with immeasurable attention and consideration it gives to its target group that will eventually result in realization of its vision.

I believe in @Verdade’s vision and I hope soon all Mozambicans join us in our belief, turning this country into a place they would like their children and grandchildren to grow up and live in.

Failures, confusions and uncertainties pop-up around us at one point or another in all aspects of our lives. They push ourselves towards our limits. They make us discover and re-create ourselves, whether in professional or personal pursuits. They makes our lives worth living.

Written by Hayk

September 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm

21st century: lose of silence and humanness

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Years 1982, 1989, 1994, 1999 are not notable but for fact that some of redefining moments of recent technological breakthrough, especially in the realm of mobile and Internet technologies, happened during those years.

Now an average American teen sends or receives around 2,200 text messages per month, but one 13-year-old  managed to handle 24,000.

We are more and more in a hurry. Time blurs because Internet and technologies bring us means that make us connected ever faster and ever more seamlessly. We want to have more done and achieved in less and less time. Competition is fierce. What we don’t realize that in these times of accelerated realities our perceived effectiveness or success based on doing more rapidly or in less time is illusionary. Once we come to that realization, it is usually too late. We become disconnected from our friends, families and even teh very realities with which we were trying to keep abreast of.

In trying to stay ahead of our lives in the accelerated 21st century, we all start feeling the strain of our pace, personal and professional, in our everyday lives. We start feeling the need to unplug. In one generation we have moved from exulting in and worshiping time-saving devices and gadgets that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time.

In 21st century, we have more and more ways to communicate but less and less to say. We don’t have time to think. We need to say as much as we can in as little a time, assuming otherwise to stay behind. Facebook, Twitter and plethora of means of communication, while admittedly helping us to receive, create and share more information, also take out of us our innate ability to reflect, ponder and consider, all of which require focus and time, of which we have less and less.

However, the urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser men have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Famous American writer Thomas Merton noted that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,” stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.

Well-known New Style designer Philippe Starck claims that he stays consistently ahead of the curve by never following news or watching TV. Highlysuccessful Malaysian businessman Vijay Eswaran attributes his success, taking his company QI Group from launch to the billion dollar mark in 10 years, to his practice of reflecting in silence for one hour everyday. Even in negotiations and sales, silence is the ultimate key to success.

A series of tests in recent years has shown, according to Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows“, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “deep thought and empathy that are essential in our love lives are inherently slow and not in concert with our speedy lives.

There is an irony to our story of becoming the most advanced in terms of tehcnology. As we created trains, machines, robots and programs, designed to address every type of needs we have, we were only able to do so, by creating and guiding those technologies and machines. Machines and technologies that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier cannot teach us how to make the best use of themselves. There is no meta level to technological revolution.

How do some of us try unplug from the information overflow?

Recent trend is mushrooming of Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China, which save kids addicted to the screen.

Another fashionable trend, especially among business professionals of all types, is yoga or meditation. Yet others go for long weekend walks in forests or hike their way up hills or mountains.

With an ever-increasing amounts of information, connectedness and speed, our innate faculty of regenerating ourselves, re-creating our inner serenity and reconnecting with nature, friends and family intuitively leads us back to many an old and well-trodden paths of our forefathers. And this is to be expected.

I just wish that with all the noise, technology and gadgets, popping up around us and affecting every aspect of our lives in more ways we would like to admit or imagine we don’t forget what we are. We are humans and all the technology in the world cannot make us any more human than we already are. If anything, it has been turning us into the very machines we have striven to create.

Written by Hayk

January 18, 2012 at 9:17 am

How lack of reading damages modern society

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Never in human history has so much knowledge been available and accessible, and yet so little curiosity or effort been expended to obtain it.

In 2010 Google estimated that there are about 130 million unique books in the world. Google Books launched in 2004 (by now 15 million books), GoodReads in 2007 (5 million members), Copia in 2009, New York Times e-book best-seller lists in 2011.

What are we doing with all this information and opportunity? What is the most accessed item on the internet? Sex.

To Read, or Not to Read,” a report based on research conducted in 2007 by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while young Americans spend almost two hours a day watching television, only seven minutes of their daily leisure time is spent reading. Almost half of 18-24-years-old Americans read no books for pleasure.

Societies have always institutionalized inequalities of one sort or another. In the past, the pursuit of knowledge and culture was very much an elite preoccupation. In the Renaissance, for example, whether it was Leonardo da Vinci (scholar/scientist in pursuit of art/knowledge/etc) or the MEdici (commissioning creation of art/knowledge/etc), the engine of culture that produced advances in science/technology/art/philosophy was driven by a minority. It is thus not counter-intuitive that despite the overall increase in educational attainment, a large segment of society reflects “non-elite” interests. In this view, “high” (i.e. educated/intelligent) culture has always been the prerogative of the few/elites. Modern political/economic/social democratization/development has therefore merely placed majority culture (which was always there but not exposed as much) in full view.

The transmission of knowledge/tradition is one of the most important functions of any society. Usually, this function is fulfilled by the intelligentsia/elite/minority of the society. The problem is not that the elite failed to “bring culture to the masses,” but that the usual mode of cultural transmission has been inverted—the supposed culture of the masses has become the currency of the intellectual elite. As the decline in literary reading amongst the most educated indicates, the pursuit of ignorance has become a cultural imperative.

Paris Hilton’s latest leather bag, Brad Pitt’s latest sunglasses and alike are the buzzword and bread of masses who do not and want not to know anything say for example about global economic crises under way, or climate changes that already affect us.

Firstly, modern intelligentsia is no longer a transmitter and beacon of high culture but more a great zombie that spearheads trashy, hippy and vulgar (from Greek term meaning “popular”). In the past, this transfer was impeded by a myriad of factors including, lack of access to information, unavailability of information, transportation/transfer difficulties, information/knowledge reproduction costs, etc.

Youth who has university degrees – if I were to generalize somewhat – is the staple good of the (“intellectual”) society and which represents a large proportion of its future leaders.

Yet, according to professor Bauerlein’s book (2008) “The Dumbest Generation,” more than half of American school leavers score below basic achievement levels even in American history; 52% think that Germany, Italy and Japan were US allies in the WW2. It is the Digital Age which has, he postulates, stunted and diminished not only the knowledge young people attain, but the very tools they require to attain it. Calculator – adding numbers. Google Translate – translate entire text without review/analysis and thought. Baroness Susan Greenfield uses the term “mind change” to highlight the potential danger to human cognitive development in the unmonitored and unregulated exposure of young minds to digital technology/media.

Second reason, apart from reversal of knowledge transfer from the elite to masses, is the manner in which education is “packaged” and delivered at schools/universities. History books, for example, are narrow in their scope and tend to have biases (for example, history Easter Europe usually doesn’t get much adequate exposure in most modern European historic treatises – a notable exception is Fischer’s history of Europe). Thus, packaging is wanty. Delivery as well became less comprehensive as teachers are less and less educated/prepared for their jobs.

A third important aspect is that history has become more idealized/romanticized. In the pursuit of “real history,” history courses depict an ideological construct that they fabricate largely in the absence of evidence or filling in the “desired” course of actions (depending on history and politics of a country). Many contemporary history courses are actually a-historical, in which the social experience and context of the past float in a timeless and eventless “now” and where all regional/temporal differences are ignored.

Socrates realized that to “know thyself” one has to go through interaction with others. We are social animals, and understanding the “other” is essential to how we live and learn. The process of gaining this knowledge to inner worlds of others is called theory of mind. It’s a developmental process whereby children gradually achieve understanding that their mental view and perception of the world is different from that of others. Older children begin to be able to place themselves in someone else’s position, to understand something from someone else’s point of view.

Reading – check the fabulous introduction to Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin why we need to read – is the ultimate form of exercise of theory of mind. It places us within the consciousness of both the writer and the characters of the book, while also giving us access to the writer’s world/experiences/imagination.

Current trend is that people want to be read, they don’t want to read. They don’t have time, nor feel there is much knowledge (beyond what they already know) that can enrich them – there is always some excuse.

The failure of our social/cultural institutions to counterbalance unwanted consequences of modern socio-technological pressures is what might bring to the point of make-or-break our modern society and its intellectual and economic achievements.

There are specks of hope though. In the spring of 1971, a librarian Marguerite Hart set out to inspire the Troy (America) youngsters to read and love the library. Her letter-writing campaign invited writers, actors, musicians, politicians to share what made reading special for them. She got 97 letters, including notes from Neil Armstrong and Isaac Asimov. The collection became known as Letters to the Children of Troy.

Entrepreneurship is a journey – fail or endure

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If we’d known we were going to make it, the challenge would not have been the same – we might have not gone. If we’d known what lay ahead, we certainly would not have gone.

The paragraph above typifies most entrepreneurial undertakings. It always starts with a bright idea, sense of uniqueness, and feeling of going to accomplish something important and doubtlessly rewarding.

However, the excerpt has little to do with business. It is an account of journey, the longest  at the time (1980-1982) from the Bronx Park (in Northern Winnipeg, Canada) to Belém (in Brasil, where Amazon meets the Atlantic) on canoe, spinning some 12,000 miles (20,000 km). Below is the final entry in the original diary (links are mine).

We have taken some 20 million paddle strokes to get here and have traveled every variety of waterway. We have slept on beaches, in jungles, in fields – sometimes in canoe, on the open water. We have shared simple food and lodgings with the Cuna Indians, the Guajiras, and the Miskitos; we have dined aboard million-dollar yachts. We have eaten shark, turtle, paca, tapir, wild pig, manioca, palm hearts, cactus. In Cartagena, we ate heaps of roasted ants.

We have encountered hundreds of species of creatures: snakes, crocodiles, piranhas, morays, sharks, whales, bees and scorpions. Strangely enough, the only animal that has given us any trouble was man; we have been arrested, shot at, robbed, jailed, and set upon by pirates. At one point we were led off at gunpoint to be executed.

We have been taken for spies and sabotoeurs, have capsized 15 times at sea and spent terrifying nights in pitch blackness riding the ocean breakers without navigation. We have had brushes with the drug trade, suffered food poisoning, blood poisoning, and dehydration. Forty-five times our canoe has been broken on rocks or reefs. Our skin has been baked to scab by the sun. We have been close to starvation.

This is reminiscent of journeys of so many of those leaving their mark in history of business, politics, arts – all human endeavor. Only the details differ, yet how many of those aspiring entrepreneurs have an idea of what awaits them alongside their journeys? How many would carry on having a foresight of future? How many would continue and endure? Not many. Yet at the end, winners always invariably stand alone:

In spite of all we’ve endured, our arrival here in Belém was anything but triumphal. No banners, no champagne, no tears or kisses. Nobody at all… Perhaps we deserve such a fate. We have come too far.

The book documenting this journey is called Paddle to the Amazon by Don Starkell.

Why failure is the ONLY path to success

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Failure. Success. What association do we have with each? Google search of the word “success” returns nearly 281 million results whereas that of “failure” 119 million. These are telling numbers and they seem to reveal the underlying “logic” of our lives. We are afraid of failures, whether they are in our personal lives and in our careers (whether changing a job/career or starting your own business).

Many are driven and inspired by success stories, recipes and recommendations of others. Success, even if it is not yours, feels good. It feels comfortable. Present and future, in that one instant, seem to become brighter and more rewarding. We live in that instant and want to stay in it.

Many are afraid of failure. We hide our failures. We try to forget them. We mostly attribute our failures to a bad luck, an out-of-control happenstance or an incident. Very few of us openly admit a failure, even less their part in it.

What we don’t necessarily know is that fear of failure destroys any chance for a possible success in future. What we also might not know is that failure breeds success.

Throughout our history, many a successful entrepreneurs, businessmen, politicians, scientists failed first before reaching success. Google returns about 672,000 search results for “failure quotes,” and each of those pages – this is a good example –  contains quotations and saying of those who made history.

I selected excerpts from some of modern (and currently very) successful entrepreneurs, businessmen and bloggers who tell of their failure stories and experiences.

Brazilian blogger Luciano Passuello, who is passionate about the world of our minds, thinks that failure “is the only way to go far enough”

Have you failed before? Was it as terrible as you had anticipated? Well, here you are reading this article, so it seems you survived all right. Truth is, failure is almost never as bad as we imagine. Fear of failure is usually much worse than failure itself.

Ryan Healy, dubbed “Most Referred Direct Response Copywriter on the Internet,” during his early youth, trying to grab on courses and lectures promising success and fortune,  admits

I was what they call a “hyper responder.” I’d buy just about anything that promised freedom and fortune. I bought programs about how to trade the commodities market (and I actually did that and made money); I bought programs on how to bet the horses; I even bought a program about how to become a “waste auditor.”

But as my drive intensified, I began to make larger investments.

I dropped $5,000 on a real estate investment course. I realized too late that I was uncomfortable using the techniques in the program; it was basically worthless to me.

And while that loss hurt, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as the next mistake I was about to make.

Yes, he made mistakes. We all do. But he came out of these mistakes and experiences a stronger person.

Ben Settle, an email marketing expert and web entrepreneur, thinks that

Because weird as it sounds, failure is a requirement for success.

And like it or not, without failure you can’t truly succeed, so avoiding it pretty much makes you dead in the water right out the gate.

I’ve met (and worked with) some serious “power players” in business. Not just on the Internet, but offline biz owners, too. I’m talking about people who sometimes make more scratch in a DAY than the average working stiff makes in 6 months toiling away for the corporate beast masters.

And you know what all these people have in common?

They started out as miserable FAILURES.

Last but not least, remember one thing. If you are failing or what you are doing is failing and things just seem plain bleak and without any perspective, then perhaps, it is time to give up what you are doing and start anew. Or perhaps, it is time to start doing something else.

As a serial entrepreneur and bestselling co-author of Trust Agents, Chris Brogan puts it

There is a right time to give up. There’s a right time to quit. The trick, and it is a HUGE trick, is knowing which is which.

adding that

Remember that surrender is every bit as much a part of strategy as victory. Learning when to surrender or lose a smaller battle has been part of the success plan of every major war ever fought. The trick is in knowing what really matters, and never letting go of that. The problem we have is that we fall into the trenches and think the battle is the war.

Failure. Success. Two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.

Embrace your failure and you will succeed.

Devver and other thoughts on failures

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Till today, I somehow failed to know about the existence of Failure Magazine. Although most of articles I checked are quite long (like this article about “No Logo” of Naomi Klein that goes for 7 pages) there is much to read and learn about.

What I meant to write about was Devver, a maker of cloud-based tools for making Ruby developers more efficient (code testing, QC).

As one of co-founders, Ben Brinckerhoff, points out:

Most of the mistakes we made developing our test accelerator and, later, Caliper boiled down to one thing: we should have focused more on customer development and finding a minimum viable product (MVP).

They assumed they already got their MVP and focused on further developing their products at the expense of loosing touch with existing/potential customer base. He admits that:

Our mistake at that point was to go “heads down” and focus on building the accelerator while minimizing our contact with users and customers (after all, we knew how great it was and time spent talking to customers was time we could be hacking!).

As Devver focused and developed its accelerator product, it became increasingly sophisticated, eventually “resulting” in setup/configuration problems – the main put-off for many users. When this hurdle was found, they came up with a solution, but again failed to keep in touch with users, instead churning out new features.

Result? Two years and $500K later, the three tech-savvy founders had to fold.

As the saying goes, “don’t fall in love with your product; let your customers do so.

As an article in Business Know-How explains, “key factors that — if not avoided — will be certain to weigh down a business and possibly sink it forevermore”:

  1. You start your business for the wrong reasons (making money is the first one on this list)
  2. Poor management (sometimes management is too techy – case with Devver – or too business)
  3. Insufficient capital (lean startups must be able to avoid this trap)
  4. Location, Location, Location (one of factors that contributed to a temporary suspension/failure of my own startup Elegua)
  5. Lack of planning (this depends on a type of business, but many businesses change/evolve so much from their original vision/plan that they become unrecognizable)
  6. Overexpansion (riding on top of seed/series A capital, hiring frenzy)
  7. No Website (this is debatable – my second startup, GPDoors, has no website yet – I do get leads via WoM)
And even if you fail (as I did and surely will do in the future), remember that:
  • Failure is necessary
  • Failure reinforces the need for risk
  • Success can breed complacency
  • Failure means you’re not alone
  • Failure doesn’t necessarily mean something went wrong
  • Failure can emphasize process, not merely people
  • Failure broadens your thinking