Failing Forward While Pivoting: Inspiring advice from Denzel Washington

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Oscar and Tony award-winning actor and director Denzel Washington’s 2011 commencement speech delivered at UPenn quickly became one of the most inspiring speeches of our generation. One YouTube video of his “Fall Forward” speech uploaded in 2019 has surpassed over 35 million views. Listen to this every day and change your life, the poster wrote. For me, it took only one listen. We need his encouragement more than ever during this time of global upheaval.

f I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall… forward.”

So many things have changed over the past year, and it’s caused us to look deep within ourselves, find faith, and pivot. We are continually reinventing ourselves and finding new ways to grow relationships, businesses, and future dreams.

Achieving and surpassing our goals hinges on being vulnerable and brave enough to consider new ways of doing things and take risks. Embrace failure because, as Washington points out, striking out is imminent at some point. An idea that doesn’t succeed, or account you don’t land, isn’t about the loss, but about what you gain in the process. By taking action, you are building momentum, prioritizing your passion, and investing in your better future self. 

There are obvious ingredients necessary in building a prosperous company: hard work, adaptability, determination, vision. But we learn as much, if not more, from our failures as we do from our wins. I invite you to see the ideas that don’t pan out as a roadmap to amazing new beginnings. 

Before you wipe the slate clean, ask yourself what didn’t work? What had potential? Where did things go wrong? What did you get right? Fall forward. Be open to radical honesty and learn how to pivot. Most ideas possess at least one thing that can be salvaged. See what develops when you use the answers to these questions as a jumping off point. 

“I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks.”

In life, we succeed when we pivot: step out of our comfort zone and welcome the unknown. In my experience, holding on too tightly can hinder my potential. I’ve evolved by relinquishing some of my control and trusting the process (even if it is preceded by “failure”). 

Four years into my new business, I was burning the candle at both ends, juggling multiple full-time roles within my start-up company. We were doing well; well enough that making big changes was risky. 

In order to grow the business, I needed to trust others, be open to receiving help, and remember that I can’t see around corners. The future may look different — and better — than I envisioned. There were highly skilled people who were hired to take on the roles of COO, CFO, Strategy Director, Human Resources. I wanted to surround myself with talented people who were experts in their field so I could excel at what I do best as CEO. 

The risk associated with hiring my new executive leadership team was high; there were no guarantees of a successful outcome. As a result of taking the ‘fall forward’ approach, we grew from the strengths and contributions each individual brought to the table, and earned the Inc 5000 fastest growing privately held company award for 2 years in a row. 

As it turned out, the risk was worthwhile. Although, I have to be honest in sharing that I had a few sleepless nights. It was the crucible for whether or not I was willing to practice what I said I believed.  The road was not always smooth as we undertook this new direction, and I had a lot of opportunities to learn and pivot. Thankfully, the risk I took increased sales and brought my business to a new level. 

“If you don’t fail… you’re not even trying.”

I want to hear about the mistakes others have made and share mine, not to sidestep them, but to learn from them. Struggling comes with the awareness of how deeply committed we are to our vision; what makes us pick ourselves back up again and fight harder and smarter from the fall. You have the power to create a future that would not otherwise happen. Whether your idea flourishes or flounders, taking action yields measurable results over time.

Even the best and brightest business leaders experience failure. Because we fiercely pursue our passion and take risks, we have a higher likelihood of failing. In his speech, Washington gets to the root of why success and failure must coexist. We live, we learn, we change. If we redefine failure as a necessary step to success, then we can shake off feelings of doubt and fall forward into the future we’ve created. 

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Jason Hennessey

Jason Hennessey is an entrepreneur, internationally-recognized SEO expert, author, speaker, podcast host, and business coach. Since 2001, Jason has been reverse-engineering the Google algorithm as a self-taught student and practitioner of SEO and search marketing.

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