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The Discipline of Staring Death (& Failure) in the Face

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Why Give a Damn:

It’s a good discipline to look failure in the face, to study it, to spend time living in that place of losing. So you can make different choices. But also so that when it comes, you can get through it.


The author of this post, Hunter Lovins, is the President of Natural Capitalism Solutions. She is also a professor of business, and a best selling author. Hunter serves as an Unreasonable Mentor at the Unreasonable Institute.

Been thinking of late about dying. Nope, not personally, least I surely hope not. When folks ask, “How’s life?” my glib answer is, “Believe it beats the alternatives.” Which, of course is a testable hypothesis we’ll all get to try. Death is an integral part of life. And entrepreneuring.

One of my favorite entrepreneurs once told me that running a start-up means that you are always about to go out of business. His company sits at the intersection of public policy, activism, science and the best shot at success that VC money can buy. Three times in the company’s life distant politicians made a decision. Decide one way and his company’s gone. He’s still there, and with a bit more luck will shortly be making a big difference in the battle to stem climate change, as well as being very wealthy indeed.

Death is an integral part of life.
And entrepreneuring.  Tweet This Quote

My thoughts turn this way in part because I’m at Harmony Hill, a spectacularly beautiful retreat on the Hood Canal in Western Washington catering primarily to people dying of cancer. The bricks in the main walk up to the great hall are inscribed in memory of those who didn’t make it. A grape arbor hangs with copper strips engraved with names of the dead. Ghosts swirl round like the sea fog that wreathes the Olympic Range each evening.

They’ve little to say to me. We’re celebrating and strategizing on life and new beginnings: on “changing business for good” at a faculty retreat for Bainbridge Graduate School (BGI). The entrepreneurial business school, was founded by Libba and Gifford Pinchot, a pair of entrepreneurs who used the profits from a successful start-up to transform business education, placing sustainability at the heart of every class, and pioneering the way for now hundreds of business schools who claim to be doing the same.

But death is ever with us. I came here from a week in the UK with the steering committee of the Alliance for Sustainability And Prosperity, an entrepreneuring effort of international experts to reinvent the global economy.

Would the kid have died had I not been on that airplane? It’s not given to me to know…  Tweet This Quote

On the plane flying back from London a young man seized. Answering frantic flight attendant calls for anyone with medical experience – I’d been 15 years a street medic, and was still certified First Responder because I ride with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Mounted Search and Rescue team – I was clearing his airway of stuff I didn’t want to know what was. A kindly flight attendant provided gloves and for the four hours it took us to divert to Bangor Maine all was forgotten but keeping him alive. It truly was a pleasure to hand him over to the real pros – the Bangor Fire Department – and return to building my PowerPoint deck for my talk that night at the new Bard MBA, another start-up, this time in the heart of Manhattan, at which I also teach.

Huh, aren’t these two schools competitive? Fighting to the death in the dog-eat-dog world of declining MBA enrollments?

Not even. When Eban Goodstein set about creating Bard MBA, Gifford offered to help in any way that he could. Bright behavior in an era in which applicants and employers question the value of business school and the very business model of an MBA school is considered a candidate for intensive care.

Our answer, in the case of both BGI and Bard is center our teaching on the discipline of sustainability, and to teach entrepreneuring, to use living cases, not hoary old stories of what some company did 40 years ago, putting students into real world. My students graduate knowing how to be earn their own living. They may be aiming at stable jobs in a big company (and companies seeking to have their people trained in how to implement more sustainable practices in ways that are profitable are sending their employees to study with us) but life’s a long time. That financially secure job that seemed so fulfilling may start to strangle. Or may itself die. Many of the jobs my students will retire from haven’t been invented yet.

Would the kid have died had I not been on that airplane? It’s not given to me to know, tho conditions consistent with life become challenging with an occluded airway. There are people walking around today because I was there. And far too many have died in my arms.

Many of the jobs my students will retire from haven’t been invented yet.  Tweet This Quote

As there are start-ups now mature and flourishing because I was there, years ago. And companies long dead I couldn’t save. Some were murdered. Partners wrote themselves fat, illegal checks, but not fat enough, nor was there money enough at stake to sue; and in court everybody loses.

Some, the Board of Directors cared more for their egos than the success of the venture. Note to self: do you know who is on your Board? Really KNOW them? A Board should never be a list of slots to be filled with impressive names and resumes. Would you trust each one of the prospective members with your life? That’s precisely what you are doing – trusting them with your corporate life.

I’ve lost companies where it felt far more terminal than some human deaths. Sad thing to say, perhaps, but then I’ve seen a lot of death.

And in each case the only option is to walk away. Grieve. Learn what there is to take on. And then begin again.

Because until you are dead – really dead – there’s always the option: begin again. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re going to buck off. You are going to hit the ground. Numbers are hard to get accurate, but some estimates put early stage venture failures at 95%.

That’s, of course, why models like Unreasonable Institute are so popular and why I remain a founding Mentor at Unreasonable. We know how to shift those numbers dramatically in favor of the entrepreneur.

Still, it’s a good discipline to look failure in the face, to study it, to spent time living in that place of losing. In part so that you can make different choices. But also so that when it comes, these little deaths, you can get through it.

The only option is to walk away. Grieve. Learn.
And then begin again.  Tweet This Quote

How do I do it? I gather friends, and mentors, supporters who can bring time and expertise, money and motivation to help me make it into that new life.

Because in the long run dying’s something we all will do, an integral part of living. And perhaps, as in entrepreneuring, it’s another opportunity to begin again.

This article is being re-featured today as a special “Throwback Thursday” post. We loved it so much, we wanted to make sure all of our new readers had a chance to read this article, (and share in the conversation).

Hunter Lovins

About the author

Hunter Lovins is the President of Natural Capitalism Solutions. NCS helps companies, communities, and countries implement more sustainable practices in ways that are profitable. She is also a professor...

Hunter Lovins has written 3 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • Kendra Larson

    I think that the story that you shared was incredibly powerful. I find it very inspiring how you stood by that boys side the whole time and made sure that he did not die. How did you manage to stay so calm in a situation like that? If it were me I would be in complete panic mode! I respect your talent and knowledge and want to thank you for sharing your story and your words of wisdom. It was very inspirational and allowed myself to look at life in a different perspective.

  • laurenkraft

    This story was beyond amazing. Thank you for sharing this. Being a street medic sounds like it is a very fulfilling job knowing that people are walking around because YOU saved their lives. The story you shared about the boy on the airplane who was having a seizure really touched me because I suffer from seizures and they are very scary and to know that you saved him and used your skills and stayed with him for the entire plane ride really puts a smile on my face. Makes me feel a little better that maybe there is hope that if I was to seize someone would be there for me, (I can only hope haha). Your story is very inspiring you seem like a very strong women, How did you manage to stay calm during this situation? I understand you were in the medical field for 15 years so that may have helped you, but on an airplane!!? In front of everybody? I would have freaked out!

  • Caitlin23

    This story is a real eye opener. So many questions filled my mind reading about you saving that boy. What if you weren’t there? How did you manage to stay calm? Was there anyone else who was trained around you? What was the atmosphere of the plane like? Major props to you, I am sure I would have panicked in that kind of situation, granted I am not trained in that kind of thing. Being a street medic must be a very stressful yet fulfilling job for you. This story gives me hope that there are good, genuine people in this world.

  • Jansscor16

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is easy to question things you’ve done right or things you’ve done wrong and apply ‘what if’s’ to everything. Those questions will ultimately help you succeed as an entrepreneur. I love your sentence “Many of the jobs my students will retire from haven’t been invented”. How does someone begin again after they’ve failed?

  • Haley Horn

    I enojoy the story of you saving someone on the airplane. You ask “Would he have died if I were not on the airplane?” Probably. I am a strong believer in that everything happens for a reason. You saved someone’s life. I love your similarity between failure and death. We all die, and hopefully go to heaven where we can start again. If we fail, we almost always have the chance to start again. Thank you.

  • masterdan55

    Thanks for this article. It was really moving. How you managed to stay calm and collected during a moment of complete chaos unimaginable. Its nice to know we have people like you out there watching over people. I can’t say that i saved someone’s life. That must be the best feeling in the world. How has your outlook on life changed since the incident.

  • lepkowskjj29

    I also can’t say that I’ve saved someones life but I did attend fire fighting school for a year and just to go through some of the training that you have to do in order to be prepared to save someones life was unimaginable.

  • ghilonipt09

    I like this comment and how he describes how imaginable it is to actually save a life before it is to late. I think the outlook on life has a huge impact on who you are as a person in society not only for self but for all the individuals around you in this world. How cool would it be to say you have saved someones life?

  • Tammy Hartmann

    Thank you, Hunter, for sharing your heartfelt story. You asked, “Would he have died if I were not on the airplane?” I bet he would have.

    You stated, “If you are an entrepreneur, you are going to buck. You are going to hit the ground. Numbers are hard to get accurate, but some estimates put early stage venture failures at 95%.” This is sad truth, and this is something we need to look at. I always tell myself to prepare for the worst.

  • Jessica Mendoza

    This article is so inspirational and moving. I can’t say that I have saved a life, but I could imagine it would be the best feeling in the world, yet the scariest. They way you explain yourself to be so calm during this moment is crazy to me! I could imagine my self just being stuck and not knowing what to do. I love your comparison between death and failure. We all die, and we all fail, but either way we still have the opportunity to continue moving forward. Thank you for sharing this article!

  • Zach Perkins

    I’d imagine this was one of the best moments of your life. Even though we all might not be able to save lives directly, everyone has the ability to make an impact on lives. I like how you tied the entrepreneur business into the article, very touching. Thanks for sharing!

  • masterdan55

    You make some really good points. I like how you reiterated how she said kids will be retiring from jobs that haven’t been invented. Good post!

  • Cory Zaeske

    I couldn’t agree more with this. Sometimes the best way to learn is to fail. Learn from the mistakes you’ve made and start again. Like you say, you’re not dead until you’re really dead. With this being said, you need to have the courage to start back up. You will then either be afraid of making the same mistakes you made, or will have learned from the mistakes you made and change your methods. Sometimes the best way to learn is to accept failure and move forward. Thank you for this post!

  • Zach Perkins

    Cory, I like your comments about having the courage “to start back up.” How do we motivate ourselves to get back to the position that took so long for us to get to in the first place? I think the true leaders of society have the ability to accept failure and not accept no as an answer.

  • Katie Ackerman

    Amazing article, you are an inspiring women! Truly a figure I can look up to these days.

  • Slepicka12

    Thank you for sharing your article. It was truly a great read and had some great points that i couldn’t agree more with.

  • Slepicka12

    I would have to agree with you about this article being very inspirational.

  • Tim Rutkowski

    I agree with you, everyone needs a role model in their lives. Although there is many females that woman can look up too, but the more the merryer.

  • http://www.opportunityknits.com OpportunityKnits

    I’ve been thinking about failure lately, as a work on launching my enterprise. I knew that I would need to make some investments eventually, but found I was afraid to actually put the money on the table, It felt like fear of losing the money, but it was (and is) really fear of failure. Now that I’ve identified and accepted the real fear, it’s easier to push through and keep on going.

  • Karissa Ponischil

    It is true that when you are running a start-up means that you are always about to go out of business. Which is a scary thought, but without start-ups, we wouldn’t have those great big name companies.

    I think a really nice way to look at this article is to understand that, yes, death is an integral part of life, but it is meant for the very end. So we shouldn’t give up before we reach that point. When we fail, we experience small deaths within ourselves, but in those times, we should only kill off the negativity and the darkness. We need to get back up and try and starting over. If we don’t, then we aren’t really living.

    If we stop trying, we forgo the life that has been given to us; we choose a complete death early. If you ask me, that seems like a waste of a pretty amazing thing.

  • robins30

    Failure is one of the best ways to learn. It teaches many hard lessons as well as teaches people how to recover from set backs. Knowing how to react from failure is a great life skill to have. Failure is an inevitable part of life. No one can succeed 100% of the time. Unfortunately, kids these days are not learning this life skill. Schools and parents refuse to let kids fail and do everything possible to make them feel like a winner. This only hurts them in the long run. In the future when they are the next generation of business leaders they will have a harder time dealing with setbacks.

  • Andrew Lauw

    This is very true. People shouldn’t see failure as a wall that stops them from reaching their dream. One of my professor once said, when you are looking for a company/entrepreneur to invest, choose the one that has a fail business before, because they are the one that know what is it like to fail, and what it takes to fail, therefore they will do better. Learning from failure is the best thing you can do, this applies to almost anything. For example: in gaming world, pro-gamer would record their game-play and see what mistakes they did and strive to improve, same case with pro athletes, they see what mistakes they made from last game and learn to be better for the next. “Failure is the best teacher,” even though most people often sees it as something negative, don’t be discouraged! Learn from it and let them laugh when you succeed next time!

  • TSpeals

    We don’t learn by doing things perfectly every time. We learn through the hard times and the failures, and you really hit the nail on the head in this article. Learning to get back in the saddle after you get knocked off the horse is just as important and paramount to success as learning how to ride in the first place.

  • AISHAN ZHANG

    Thank you for posting this article. I cannot agree your more with your points. As we all know, “Failure is the mother of success.”

  • alvinardisa

    Thank you for offering us a new perspective on failure. Given your experience, walking away, grieving, and learning from failures are the best way to deal with the failure itself. However, I have seen plenty of people who went out of business without knowing clearly what mistake did they make. For me, the hardest part it not learning from mistakes, but recognizing the mistake is.

  • KE ZHANG

    Great article, giving the hope for the people in the downturn. Life isn’t always be success from the beginning to the end, it is sometimes need sorts of encouragement. The worst failure maybe is better than an extremely success, failure like the catalyst can light you up even stronger. In the perspective of colorful life, success and failure simultaneously accompany with us in the whole life. Thanks for you sharing and I am looking forward to read more.

  • Taylor Bolibol

    I think this article addresses many people’s worst fears in life. Failure. However I do believe you learn the most from losing. Losing effects change. It is like playing a soccer game. When your team wins there are always things to work on but they don’t seem as extreme as when you lose because most likely you were doing a lot of things right that will remain the same if you win. But in order to win the next game if you lose you must implement change immediately and aggressively!

  • pharkey

    Love the comparison between life and death and the failure of startups. Running up a startup take a lot of courage especially since statistically, a startup is more likely to fail than succeed. It will be interesting to how the success rate of startups fairs in the future as more business schools focus on consulting and entrepreneurship.

  • Camillewuensch

    This article is great at showing us the life and death of a business. It takes a lot of time, money and effort into starting a business and putting it on the map. You really show that even if you “die” with your business that you should always get back up and start over. That this time with starting new could be the best for your business. No matter where we study or have jobs, there will always be that struggle to become the best and always fear in the back of everyone’s mind that in the near future death is waiting for us. This article makes me not want to give up and if my idea or plan dies to start fresh and come up with a better plan.

  • mrmanuz

    Some businesses die, that’s the way of capitalism. Some businesses will swallow other businesses, some will simply edge them out. Much of the time, however, the death of a business is no one’s fault but the person who owns it. We make mistakes. The important thing is that these mistakes prevent the death of future businesses. This is the point of failure: To teach us how not to do things later on.