Take the Plunge

What’s so spectacular about failure? Why use a good term for a bad event?

Seeing Your Way Through Spectacles

You may know that spectacular comes from spectacle, meaning something eye-catching, dramatic, curious, or even contemptible. Something spectacular is not always a good thing. On a treacherously wet day in the Delaware Valley, I’m thinking back to last July 4th.

I am a devotee of Philadelphia’s 4th of July celebrations. The way the whole city puts on an all-day show of patriotism and family-friendly history lessons really chokes me up, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. No matter how jammed the itinerary you simply can’t take in all there is to do on the 4th, and we always try. It ends with a fabulous parade, a great concert, and glorious fireworks. Last year, after a brilliant day of walking, touring, listening, and learning, we settled on the Art Museum lawn with dinner as a few drops of rain began to fall.


We waited for many hours in the worst rain I’ve ever been outside in. Minutes before they were to begin, we were told the fireworks were cancelled. The crowd (such as it was) let out a roar of disappointment. We slogged the twenty blocks back to our car, my daughter holding back sleepy tears. Within view of the car, people began madly running from their houses, and we realized the fireworks had been un-cancelled, now that we were too far away, and far too soaked and exhausted, to make our way back to see them. What a night! This really had the potential for a spectacular failure.

The spectacle of watching friends run a business into the ground that had all the potential in the world, with heads stuck firmly in sand, is not exactly the same kind of spectacular. Particularly (this was many years ago now) since said friends had me on the payroll. Not long after that I was with a large corporation that also did a spectacular dive. Like at our soggy, delayed Philadelphia fireworks, there was a good amount of anger, shock, and disappointment in the ranks. Like at the fireworks, there were plenty of people wondering afterwards if the fiasco could have been prevented. I can’t answer that for Philly or for that spectacular corporate failure.

I’ll Take a Happy Ending With That

I can (and will!) stretch the analogy further. These spectacles had happy endings for at least some of the little people caught up in them. When the cancellation was cancelled, and the sky erupted in color, my daughter and I stopped the car on a corner blocks from the Art Museum, put on our flashers, and with the help of a nice police officer who “advised” other drivers to do the same, we finally saw a beautiful show. (All around us, traffic came to a halt, with barely a honk.) When the smoke cleared, we’d had one of the best views ever, and reaffirmed my belief that there is something special about Philadelphia—where else would an officer lean on my car in implicit advocacy of stopping for a minute to smell the roses? It was the police force’s night to be brand ambassadors for the city, just by doing what came naturally. We saw some spectacular fireworks in Philadelphia on the 4th (along with a few thousand of our closest, and wettest, friends). That was good.

For those affected by the corporate flame-out I went through back in the early 1990s, there were lessons learned about how many eggs should be in one basket, having backup plans, and looking out for Brand Me, for sure. By now we have all heard that relying on a corporate Great Father is at best, shortsighted. What I took away from staying to the end mainly involved grace under pressure, how to keep a sharp eye on shifting needs and adjust at lightning speed, and a lot of conflict management skills. What I noted then and have seen since in many corporate “reorganizations,” was the great numbers of coworkers who went out on their own after being cut loose. That to me is a happy ending.

We’re at that point again. Time to look for ways to turn a spectacle (market failure? corporate uncertainty? recessionary woes?) into something spectacular for your life, your growing business.

Did you take the plunge back then? If you did, then you know that small- to mid-size businesses innovate, take risks, hire people, plan, grow, and they create our economic strength. Flat revenues just won’t do, and unless your head is in the sand, you’ll notice the pinch and act to correct it faster in a smaller firm. Small business owners take the lessons of the corporate world and streamline for their own use. You can create an Experience that makes your customer a devotee, and it won’t take you a couple of years to roll it out. If you’ve been downsized, reorganized, or offered early retirement, wake up your entrepreneurial spirit. Self-determination brings the ability to have spectacular endings of your own making.

What lessons have you learned from spectacular failures that hit too close to home?

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson