I Lost $52 Million and Lived to Tell About It
“I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, but I promise you this is the very best thing for the business,” he said.
“Yup, I know. I’m 100 percent on board,” I exhaled.
And with that, my then CFO and I knew we were ending a $52 million contract. Making that decision was the best thing I’ve ever done for my business. I’m here to talk about failure, but, to be clear, losing this deal wasn’t my big failure.
Sure, I felt like a failure to my team. We felt totally incompetent, like we had been playing a game of checkers when my supposed collaborators had been playing chess. And, sure, I felt like the business was going to take a nosedive towards a dramatic end. But still, those things didn’t make me feel like a total failure.
The failure was in ignoring the warning signs that had been looming for at least two years. Anyone looking at my predicament could have spotted this dramatic, climactic ending 50 miles away. And when I look back, I saw it too. I just ignored it.
It all started simply (and at the time, I thought purely) enough. A mentor wanted to bring me in on a deal that would “change my life.” In theory, it truly had the potential to do so. We would be the lead partner on the project, and I was excited about the possibility to be so creative in such a big way with such a big partner.
And right at that moment, I should have given myself the “emotional test.” If you don’t know this test, you should learn it and master it. Just ask yourself one question: Does this opportunity make me feel constricted or expansive?
For me, the answer was always constricted. I thought this was my fear of getting bigger (as an agency, we would have gotten so much bigger after this deal). But really, it was my body telling me that this was not the thing to do. When I think back, every time I thought about or engaged in the pitch for this work, my body was screaming at me to abort immediately.
Every time I thought about or engaged in the pitch for this work, my body was screaming at me to abort immediately.
If I pass the “emotional test,” then I give myself my “faith test” next. I am the daughter and granddaughter of pastors, definitely a “PK” (preacher’s kid), a non-denominational Christian. For me, my faith is a guidebook for me — the Bible is my guidebook. One specific scripture that has served as a guiding light is Proverbs 10:22. It basically says that the blessing of God makes us rich with no sorrow.
When I look back on my life, the biggest successes I had required lots of hard work, but there was never any sorrow. Sorrow is a mixture of grief, regret and distress — all things I felt during that big “partnership.” My faith test should have been enough to make me drop the project. But still, $52 million.
If I pass the first two tests, there’s the final “physical test.” And this is just so simple (no faith required!): Interlock your thumbs and index fingers into two circles. Think about whatever the proposed opportunity. Now pull. Does it easily release? Then it’s not for you. If it holds firm, proceed (with caution, though!). And, you guessed it, I failed this test too.
My failure was a failure to listen to every part of me: mind, body and spirit. Every part of me knew this decision was wrong, but somehow I just doubted that I was smart enough to make the right choice. Clearly, I didn’t yet understand what was required of me to do this big deal, I reasoned. I promised myself a failure like this would never happen again, and it hasn’t.
Many months later, I was chatting with a friend, discussing the business loss and how I’d moved on. We talked about the things I had done in the aftermath, and she encouraged me to share what I learned. So here it is — my tips for overcoming a massive loss:
1. Don’t talk to more than five people about it. Not everyone wants you to succeed or be successful. Many people will delight in your misery, and they will gossip about you. Keep your circle of influence and advice small.
2. Talk to people who will give you the best advice not just what you want to hear. My Fantastic Five gave me a lot of tough love, and they didn’t let me wallow in self-pity
3. Begin again. I know it’s easier said than done, but the minute I acknowledged the loss, acknowledged how horrible it made me feel and felt my anger (this is important — don’t ignore your anger), I could start again.
Now when I look back on this situation, I think about Yogi Bajan’s 5th sutra: “Understand through compassion, or you will misunderstand the times.” To me, this means having compassion towards the people who may have wronged me and also towards myself.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how I’m doing now, I must say things couldn’t be better! I am doing the best work of my life, only doing things that align with my values and that make me feel expansive. I may have lost a $52 million dollar deal, but I gained my integrity and the keys to making the very best decisions for the rest of my life. You really can’t place a value on peace of mind and a clear conscience.
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