Never Give Up: In Praise of Failing Forward

28 January 2015 · 10 comments

I was interviewed this morning for a segment on Yahoo Finance. It didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped. I was nervous. I fumbled when I spoke. I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say, even though I was speaking about my own experience.

Preparing to be filmed for Yahoo Finance
Here I am, talking to thin air…

As I stumbled — stopping and re-starting my sentences again and again — I began to panic. What was happening? I’ve been interviewed dozens of times in the past year, and I’ve interviewed dozens of people myself. I never have problems. I’ve had several interviewers praise my poise recently, but poise was nowhere to be found today.

Searching for Answers

While driving home, I tried to figure out what went wrong. Jeremy, the producer, had been friendly and organized and very clear about what he wanted. I spent plenty of time reviewing the topic we’d be covering (my tax audit in 2014) and I felt comfortable with the material. When I reached the television studio where we filmed the segment, I spent half an hour chatting with the woman who was managing things on our end. Everything should have gone great!

But it didn’t.

“You know, I always suck at television interviews,” I thought. But I know that’s not true. Sometimes I kill it when I’m on TV. Sure, I’ve had several bad experiences before, but it’s not true that I always suck at television interviews.

So, what makes some of my TV interviews go well and others poorly? Was there a common thread? I tried to find a common thread.

“Well, my favorite TV segments have been the ones where I’m actually talking with a live person,” I thought. I remembered a bit I did on DIY Christmas gifts a few years ago. For that, I stood in a local TV studio and joked around with the program’s host. That was fun. Or once in Denver, I did a segment about Fincon where I chatted directly with the news anchor. That went well too.

But what about the times I’ve sucked? There was the time I did a piece for a station in Miami. I sat in a local TV studio and talked to empty air, staring directly at the camera. I bumbled my way through that one too. At the time, I attributed my poor performance to the fact I had a high fever, but looking back I now see similarities to today’s situation. In both cases, I was talking to nobody — looking into empty space while trying to act like I was an expert.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is similar to my public speaking problems. When I’m on stage speaking to an audience, trying to play the expert, I don’t do well. I get nervous. I stumble and lose my way. But when it comes time for questions and answers, I shine. I do great when I’m interacting with somebody, when there’s a give and take, a conversation. It’s tough for me when I’m left to ramble on my own.”

After experiences like this, there’s a part of me that wants to pack it in. I want to decline all future interview opportunities. But you know what? I’ve spent the past decade learning that in order to grow, in order to enjoy life, in order to become a better person, I have to do the things that scare me. I have to face my fears and act despite of them. Will I fail? Absolutely! Sometimes I’ll fall flat on my face. Other times, like today, I’ll shuffle and stumble and be awkward. But in the long run, these failures make me better. I improve by looking at what went wrong and trying to correct it the next time.

Never Give Up

Before the interview this morning, I was thinking about the notion of never giving up. My thoughts were prompted by a trivial experience.

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing a bit of Hearthstone, which is an online card game. I like to play in the Arena, which means I pay two bucks create a deck from random cards and then am matched against random opponents. I can continue playing until I’ve lost three games.

During my Hearthstone games, it’s common for me to fall behind early. It looks like I’m going to die an early death. It would be easy to quit when my opponent is crushing me after only a few turns. But here’s the thing: My style of play is slow and methodical. Despite falling behind early, I often rally to take control of the match. Longer ago, I did concede matches if I fell behind, but now I know never to give up. There’s a good chance I’ll rally for victory.

This “never give up” attitude applies to the game at another level. Sometimes when I build a deck, I’ll lose my first two matches. In the past, I’d just throw in the towel. I wouldn’t play a third match but would instead scrap the deck and build a new one. Not anymore. I’ve learned that even when I start 0-2, I can often finish with three or four or five wins. Yesterday, for instance, I almost gave up after being crushed in my first two matches with a new deck. Instead, I gave the deck another chance. I won. Then I won again. And again. In fact, I won six straight games, which earned me enough in-game currency to build a new deck for free. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d given up after losing my first two games.

“Never give up” is a common admonition in game and sports. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” we’re told. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of The Amazing Race. After watching 25 seasons of the show, I’ve learned a couple of things about the competition. The first rule of the Race is to always read your clues. (It’s mind-boggling how many people lose because they didn’t follow instructions.) But the second rule of the Race is to never give up. No matter how wrong things seem to have gone for a team, there’s always a chance they’ve been worse for somebody else.

In Praise of Perseverance

This “never give up” attitude is applicable to the real world too, of course, and in non-trivial ways. During the 1990s, when I was buried in debt, I wasn’t good at persevering. I’d spend a month or three trying to pay down my credit cards, but then give up at the first sign of adversity. I did the same thing with my fitness. I’d lose a few pounds but then return to my gluttonous ways at the first temptation.

It’s trite, I know, but when I look at the people in my life who have been most successful — by whatever means you want to define that word — they’re the folks who don’t let setbacks rule their lives. They fail forward, using mistakes and adversity as a launching pad to self-improvement. It’s all to easy to use mistakes and setbacks as an excuse to not achieve the things you want; but it’s better to take the tougher route, to wrestle with these obstacles and overcome them.

I’m curious to see how this morning’s Yahoo Finance interview comes together. Maybe the final product really will suck. Maybe I was so nervous and incoherent that the producer won’t be able to create anything worthwhile from the footage. On the other hand, it’s possible that there’s enough material there for him to make me look charming and insightful (ha!).

Regardless, I know one thing: I’m not going to give up. The next time an opportunity comes along to do a television interview, I’m going to do it — even if it means I’m talking to empty space again. Someday, once I do this enough, once I fail enough, I’ll be just as good at giving TV interviews as I am at writing blog posts.

1 Tyler Karaszewski January 28, 2015 at 13:14

No matter how wrong things seem to have gone for a team, there’s always a chance they’ve been worse for somebody else.

This reminds me of sailing. Sailing is a sport where, like any other, you have to push your limits if you want to win. However, unlike many (not all) other sports, pushing your limits often comes with a risk of catastrophic failure. It’s easy to put yourself in a position where a single mistake has you doing five minutes of recovery, or even retiring early with equipment failure.

So, if you’re racing sailboats, and you find yourself in last place, keep sailing. For one, the rules are such that even if you finish last, you score better than if you don’t finish at all, and there’s always (especially in high winds and difficult conditions) the chance that someone in front of you makes a mistake and allows you the opportunity to finish ahead of them. Always persevere, because you may pick up a spot or two even where you didn’t expect it.

I guess that’s about sticking with something more that failing forward, but they’re related. Even a loss often comes with a lesson that you can apply in the future. I can tell you a reason to never try and tack spinnaker, no matter how light there wind is, for instance.

2 Brian @ Debt Discipline January 28, 2015 at 13:58

Good attitude to have JD. Where/when can we see the interview?

3 jdroth January 28, 2015 at 17:38

Not sure. I’ll post it here (and GRS will probably post it) when it’s live.

4 bethh January 28, 2015 at 17:59

This is a useful insight if you use it – I’d say the next time you’re contacted for an interview, tell them what you’ve learned and ask if there’s some way to have you interact with a live human while answering the questions – skype? a stand-in? a friend just behind the camera you can speak to?

5 Diane C January 29, 2015 at 10:02

I just picked up* a copy of “10% Happier” by Dan Harris. The subtitle is “How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help Than Actually Works – A True Story”.
He’s the ABC Correspondent who had an on-air meltdown. I haven’t read it, but my initial skim has me very intrigued. I think his writing style and message will resonate with you, JD.

*I volunteer at my library’s book sales so I can buy bagfuls of books for $5 each, which is why I haven’t gotten around to reading this one yet.

6 Edward January 29, 2015 at 11:44

Great story! I rarely see anything as ‘fail’ or ‘win’. It’s just stuff that happens and some works out better than others.
Similarly to yours, people will tell me I’m a great public speaker. And I can be, if I’m up there improvising, playing guitar , or MC’ing a friend’s wedding, and have a general idea what I’m talking about. But if I have to actually *read* off a page? That’s when it all falls apart–I start to shake, trip on words, mumble. It’s horrifying! Like I’m back in Grade 2 reading my first book report to the class. I used to go to these open reading poetry/short story nights. While the self-intro and banter with the audience was charming, when it came time to read? Bogus. But I kept at it. Not sure if I got any better at it or not (pretty sure not). A person has to be realistic enough to admit when they’re not great at a specific given thing, but that doesn’t mean to abandon it.

7 Courtney January 29, 2015 at 12:57

Hi J.D.,

Such a timely post. I just conducted my second ever TV interview this morning! It went really well, as did my first one a couple weeks ago. I know what you mean about talking to someone, not just the camera. In both cases, I pretty much ignored the camera (as I was advised to do) and spoke directly to the news anchor. I’m not sure what happened, but both times it was if I was in a tunnel and was intently focused only on the task at hand. Both interviews took place in busy grocery stores, but I don’t recall noticing anyone around me, though seeing the footage later, there were plenty of people around. It was just me and the interviewer. The first time I was so nervous I was shaking, but just before the interview I took several deep breaths and told myself “I got this!” Another thing that truly helped me was the use of some essential oils, specifically one intended to put you into a parasympathetic state (relaxed, non-fight or flight) and I swear it worked like a dream both times. I went from nervous and shaky, to cool and confident within seconds of applying it. I have at least two more interviews in the next few days, one on live morning news and a second on a local morning show doing a segment that is 6 minutes long (YIKES!). I intend to do what I’ve done before with the breathing, positive self talk, and essential oil and hope it works out well.

On a completely different note, if you want to read about never giving up and perseverance, I highly recommend the book “Deep Down Dark” by Hector Tobar about the 33 trapped Chilean miners who in 2010 spent 69 days 2200 feet underground. I absolutely could not put it down.

8 Melissa February 5, 2015 at 12:17

“When I’m on stage speaking to an audience, trying to play the expert, I don’t do well. I get nervous. I stumble and lose my way. But when it comes time for questions and answers, I shine. I do great when I’m interacting with somebody, when there’s a give and take, a conversation. It’s tough for me when I’m left to ramble on my own.”

I have exactly the same issue! I wonder if this is an extra/introversion issue – I tend to rely on energy coming from another person as I speak and it is disconcerting to talk into the air with no response. From the more introverted people I’ve talked to, they have the opposite issue and tend to really enjoy giving speeches where they don’t have to directly interact with other people.

Do you have any advice for overcoming this particular issue? I would like to be more comfortable talking for a long period of time about a subject without feeling nervous and off-balance.

9 fred February 11, 2015 at 05:01

Hey JD, you are a really inspirational to us all. I,ve been following you since GRS and never tire of what you have to say. Thank you.

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