The Freedom to Fail

Last month I was invited by Halogen Foundation and the SCWO to speak at National Young Leaders’ Day Women’s Edition (NYLDWE), part of Halogen’s central effort to reach out to and influence Singapore’s young leaders.

The event brings together four women leaders to share their life stories and leadership lessons with over seven hundred young women participants. This year’s theme was ‘The freedom to be…what’s next”.

I have to be honest, I was both honored to be invited and terrified at the idea of it.

And that got me thinking about fear…

The funny thing about fear is that we can’t escape from it. We are all afraid. Every day we are afraid.

We’re afraid of missing deadlines and appointments, of running out of money, failing our exams, we’re afraid of being late, of losing our jobs, of disappointing our families. Of not being perfect.

But what exactly is it that we are afraid of? Mostly, we are afraid to fail. Because failure is scary.

Then I realised that I am probably less afraid of failure than most people – mainly because I have already failed. A lot.

I often introduce myself as someone who has failed many times because I believe it is my failures not my successes that are most significant. It is the failures that made me the person that I am today and they will continue to shape who I become.

I arrived on the morning of the event and sat in the audience at Kallang theatre. I was completely daunted by the huge stage with giant pictures of me all over it.

When I stepped onto the stage, the first thing I did was share with the audience how afraid I was when I agreed to speak at the event. I told them that even though I was afraid, I decided to do it anyway, because I made myself a promise a long time ago that I would never let fear of failure hold me back.

This is the story I shared that day:

At age 16 our family lost everything when our business in the Philippines was blown up by a volcano. My parents returned to the UK where my mum took a job as a domestic helper and my father was homeless relying on hostels to keep a roof over his head.

I stayed in the Philippines hoping to help save the business, but within a year the business failed. I felt so ashamed that I could not do more to save our business that at 17 I dropped out of college and ran away.

I eventually used up all my money and ended up living in slums. I almost died of typhoid fever before I finally returned to the UK to be with my parents.

By 20 had I turned my life around and embarked on a very exciting career as a flight stewardess for British Airways.

When I turned 24 I was happily married but in just 5 months, when I was 3 months pregnant with our first son, my husband had a serious car crash and was severely brain damaged. My life had fallen apart. All of my hopes and dreams meant nothing. I felt hopeless.

At just 25 I was in unhappy broken marriage with a baby son  and a disabled husband. And my marriage failed.

Then I met the man who would pick up the pieces. He became my best friend, my business partner and the father of our children.

In 2001 we started our first business. We worked hard and we did amazingly well, but we had no commercial experience and as we started to grow we made mistakes.

We almost landed a deal that was worth millions but it fell through and we eventually lost our business. That was my biggest business failure – and yet it taught me the most about business.

Then we started our second business – we did it differently. We were finally making it. We went after bigger deals, bigger clients. And we got them. But we did not know how to grow a business and the fast growth of the business almost shut us down.

We were down to our last £20 and almost bankrupt, before we managed to turn it around.

All of these crazy things happened to me.

I failed over and over again, yet I was not a failure – because I never gave up.

Edison said

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.

They gave up. That is when they failed.

So now I have dedicated my life to helping others succeed. And I build communities where professionals and entrepreneurs can help each other succeed.

I often introduce myself as someone who has failed several times, not because I am proud of my mistakes but because I value failure as a catalyst for success.

I believe that only through failure can we begin to understand what success really means.

Failing is a part of life, so we need to give ourselves the freedom to fail.

Everybody fails.

Oprah was fired from her job as a reporter because she was “unfit for TV”, Disney went bankrupt four times. He was told he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.

Einstein couldn’t speak fluently as a child and his parents concluded he was mentally retarded. Edison was told by a teacher that he was too stupid to learn anything.

In 2001 Psy was fined by South Korean government authorities due to his 1st album’s “inappropriate content”. In 2010 he ran out of money to produce and release his own songs.

JK Rowling was a penniless, depressed, divorced, single mother, attending school while writing her most famous novels.

Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade. He was defeated in every public office role he ran for before he became the British prime minister at the age of 62.

Just a few examples of people who failed before they found success.

I believe that failure is the greatest teacher.

But remember:

  • Failure is not the opposite of success
  • Success is not the opposite of failure
  • Failing is part of success

(Thank you Charlotte Ong for reminding me of this)

Failure teaches us humility. Because we are not perfect. Failure teaches us empathy. Because no one is perfect. And failure makes us stronger.

These are all lessons for success.

What does success mean to you?

Everyone’s idea of success is different. Our friends, our parents, our brothers and sisters, our teachers, our colleagues – even our partners. We all have different measures of success.

To me success is having people around me when things fall apart. It is having strength to carry on when everything is going wrong. It’s picking myself up and celebrating what I have, when there isn’t much left. It’s doing what I love for the right reasons.

To me success is having the conviction that I can make a difference and having the courage to take action – even though I am afraid.

If at the end of it all, I have touched someone’s life in some small way and made it just a tiny bit better than it would have been otherwise – perhaps then I will be a success.

Success means different things to different people and only you can define what it means to you. I believe this is one of the most important considerations of your life.

I closed with this quote by Ralph Emerson:

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

And with a reminder to never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER give up.

Here’s the full video of my speech, courtesy of Halogen Singapore:


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About Gina Romero

Tech-smart, business-savvy, down to earth, inspired connector of people & ideas. Contagiously enthusiastic, Star Wars loving girl geek.
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