You have to be in the game to win
Transcript of school prize day speech from July 2015
I’m Vicky Brock. I went to school at Sprowston High School, here in Norfolk, just a few miles up the road, and I’m Founder and CEO of Clear Returns, which was recently named top tech start-up company in Europe. I sat here in a school hall like you many years ago at your age absolutely no idea that a job like mine even existed, that I could remotely have the capability or confidence to do it, and I couldn’t see a path ahead that could possibly lead me to here. And yet here I am!
So, I’m going to talk to you this evening about something I care very much about and that’s failing your way to success, because I can tell you I’ve got an awful lot more experience in failing than I have in succeeding. I hope that by sharing some of those with you, you may be able to use some of those experiences to your advantage.
Of course, this is a prize giving event. We’re here to celebrate achievement tonight and quite rightly so. But there are lots of you sitting here who have worked like crazy all year. You have tried your best but despite all your efforts, you won’t have won the thing you set your heart on, the thing that, for you, defines success.
And it hurts. I know it hurts. But what you do next determines whether that is going to be a critical step on your personal path to success. Because although we spend so much time - especially in formal education - trying to get less bad at what we’re not good at, it’s those things where we work harder and harder at getting better at what we’re already good at that in the end defines who we are.
I want to stress to you, as I’ve stressed all day with the groups of fantastic girls I’ve worked with here, there are worse things in life than failing. If you win first time, you’re probably not competing in the right league. You’re playing it too easy and maybe you’re not actually going to learn a lot from that. Failure is a necessary step in recognising and refining the process of how you’re going to succeed, and it’s also a really important step in defining what you care about. It’s the thing that hurts, it’s the loss that you resent, it’s the triumph that you didn’t achieve that helps you hone the instinct of where you’re going to focus in future - and the tactics for doing that.
Three important things I didn't win
So, I’m going to share three of the most important things I didn’t win with you. And I have to say that more than winning top tech start up or winning this or winning that - and I’ve been very lucky and funnily enough, the harder I work, the luckier I get - it is these things that I haven’t won that have best defined my path.
1. The first one, and I would say the most important one because it truly shaped my process of how I go about trying to personally succeed at what I care about, an evening just like this. Sprowston High School in my uniform not dissimilar to yours. The prize that I had set my heart on, services to the school, a prize frankly that I absolutely deserved because I had worked very very hard, went to Eleanor Hurn. Eleanor Hurn?! I mean, lovely girl but not me! I can still picture absolutely what she’s wearing, her ponytail. She got the prize that I wanted and I was truly devastated - as you can tell by the fact I can still recall it so very accurately. I was obviously extremely upset, cried for hours, probably days, and felt a huge amount of injustice because I’d worked so hard. But then when I finally calmed down, I looked at it again and thought about what I needed to do to win it next time. I actually developed a process that I still use now - and at the heart of that is actually do less and tell more. Do less, but focus on what you’re better at and commit the time to communicate your impact. So, I sat down and I looked at really what were the criteria of this prize. Did I have to be brilliant working my backside off for absolutely everything all the time, or could I just focus on a few things that were most likely going to get me this prize? Who decided, when did they decide, what were they judging it on? From that I very systematically figured out the way that I could do as little as possible with the most impact, but tell as many relevant people about it as required to ensure that I won it. And win it I did. Perhaps a little cynical - although I call it focus - it’s an extraordinarily important process to me that I still use. This idea of understanding the criteria of success, working back through what you need to do and when, and allowing enough time and enough information gathering all the way through to actually promote what you’re doing. I know I don’t do it enough, you know, there are people who just do 80% promotion and 20% effort. I probably do 70% effort, probably even more than that, and 20-25% promotion. That’s probably still not enough but the fact is, whatever the ratio, you have to build that in. So do less and tell more...
2. The second thing I didn’t win - and this still hurts as well - as I like to remind all parties involved. Four years ago, I was really ready to start a company. I knew I wanted to do it. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to create a wonderful company. I didn’t know the path. I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know how to do it. I was lucky enough to get shortlisted for a programme where I would be all expenses paid, sent off to Boston for three months to an entrepreneur school where I would learn how to do this. Now, I went off to the selection weekend, had an amazing weekend, and in my opinion I still believe I was completely brilliant. My team won. We were the best team. I was completely sure I was going to Boston.... and then I was the only person of my team that didn’t get selected. Oh, boy, that hurt. It hurt enormously - but I didn’t spend that long wallowing this time. I went straight into, “I’ll show them”, mode and very, very quickly, I determined, “Do you know what? By the time these people are back from Boston, I’m going to have a company. Not only am I going to have a company, it’s going to be the best company out of everybody’s company”, and I just got on with it and made it happen. I realised that I didn’t need a piece of paper to validate me anymore. I didn’t need somebody else telling me I could do it. I just needed to get on with it and do it, and I did, and Clear Returns actually came out of that, my current company. So, that’s kind of that point where you have to stop learning, stop studying, stop practising and actually get into the competition and make it happen.
3. The third thing I didn’t win was just a few weeks back. I failed to win at the Retail Week Awards, more specifically Clear Returns did, but the interesting thing is, I can’t remember who did. I don’t have any feelings one way or the other because we went into that competition with a process in mind and a specific goal. Our goal was to get in front of the judges. The goal was to get in front of our target markets. We went in, we showed up, we tweeted and we turned it into a great sales opportunity, and we carried on the next day as if we had won. We contacted people, we promoted ourselves people, and we’ve worked off the back of that. I know we will win another time. This is not something where I’ve felt the need to get all wound up because actually at this point, I’ve learned that being in the game, being seen, being visible is enough, especially if you just get on with it and tell people about it.
Every time we fail, we get closer to winning.
That is utterly true provided we learn and adapt. If you run against a brick wall 500 times and change nothing, the only thing that’s going to get broken is you. If you learn, if you think about it, if you adapt, if you try different tactics, a way around the problem, through the problem, you know, bring semtex and explode your way through. Try all of this different stuff and refine, refine, refine, and you will get closer to success. Now, I’m sorry, I don’t regard that as failure. I regard that as ingenuity, practice, tactics, resilience, effort, and all of these incredibly positive things. Failure is such a soul destroying word. It has such power. We let people embed that power on us and most of all, we let ourselves be cowed by that word.
I think we just have to do, what we need personally is to flip it all round and fail fabulously. For my own psychological wellbeing, I have to think about failing fabulously to turn it into a positive step towards what I’m trying to get to. Business failure is absolutely the same as sporting failure. It’s the same as not having won this thing that you’ve focused on so hard, or achieved this thing that you’ve focused on hard, but it can be your fuel. Embrace it, use it as an energy source, and help it drive you towards your counterplan.
Do you know what? As I’ve said before, the harder I work, the more times I try, the luckier I get and the closer to succeeding I get. There are worse things than failure. The biggest thing, the saddest thing, the most common thing, I do it and I know you do it, we all do it, is talking yourself out of showing up, listening to this little negative voice on your shoulder that tells you, “You can’t do it”, that you’re not good enough, that you’ll look silly, that people will laugh at you. Why even try when you know you’ve got no chance? It’ll be safer, it will feel better if you don’t show up, if you don’t enter, if you don’t even try.... Don't listen!
You have to be in the game to win
You have to be in the open arena to have any chance of succeeding. The other people will succeed if you’re absent, so please, if you only do one thing and you only take one thing out of this, don’t listen to that little voice that’s trying to talk you out of showing up because failing is not the worst thing that can happen.
Giving up when you don’t succeed first time is worse than failing. Seriously, t
he only times I’ve ever got winning a running race is if I go maybe down to the P1’s in kindergarten and race against them. I’m not completely sure that’s the best use of my time and energy but I might just win the 100 metres. Or actually I might not - there’s probably some fantastic little runners down there! But playing in the wrong league is the easiest way to win first time. I’m not sure anybody gains or learns anything from that, so giving up when you don’t succeed first time is way worse than failing.
I’m not saying don’t get your hopes up because you need your positive energy that comes from hope, you need to be focusing on what success means for you. But it won’t come instantly. It almost certainly, in probability terms, won’t come the first time and you know I love my data. Let’s look at this statistically. If your chance of success is one in fifty, you know, the chances of it coming on the first time are slim - but you will get there.
There are other things that are worse than failure and that’s letting the cruel words of others break your belief in yourself. Now, aren’t there some really cruel words around failure? There’s the people that laugh at you when you’ve put your head above the parapet, when you’ve stepped out and taken a risk that terrifies you and you don’t succeed. You fall over and everybody has a cruel word to say. They weren’t there, they didn’t stand up, and they weren’t brave. You’re the awesome one and you’re also the focus of the cruel words.
We can all accidentally be cruel to each other and casually dismiss somebody’s hopes and dreams in the negative words we all bound up around failure, and we can also do it to ourselves. In fact it’s even easier to be cruel to ourselves in the vocabulary that we use around failure than other people are. But certainly letting other people reinforce our doubts and putting more belief in their words than they deserve is worse than trying and failing. It really, really is.
The other thing is quitting too soon. It is soul destroying and demoralising when you try over and over again and you get rejected. You fail and you get laughed at and you get slapped down. I have pitched this business probably approaching 300 times, maybe more.
Yesterday, I had some potentially very exciting investment news - a success. That success came after 18 months and 297 attempts. If I’d quit at 295 - and believe me, I wanted to quit at 295 - I wanted to quit at 195, I wanted to quit at 95! But if I had, my business wouldn’t be about to go on the trajectory that it potentially is and I wouldn’t have won my own personal success. So, those previous 296 times, it wasn’t failure, it was practice.
So go and have a wonderful evening this evening, celebrate your achievements and remember, even if Eleanor Hurn wins your prize, it wasn’t failure, it was practice.
How to come up with ideas for your startup - with a little help from high school students