How to challenge without failing

By Yeu-Kang Hua

How to challenge without failing

This is a story of my personal experiences and reflections at INBOUND 2015, a business event hosted by HubSpot that took place in Boston last year.

‘People who take responsibility, get responsibility. We don’t give it to you; you take it. And what comes with it, is the willingness to give away credit.’

September 8, 2015 was the first time I had even heard of Seth Godin. According to my colleagues, he was brilliant, famous for promoting ‘permission marketing’, and being the author of several international bestselling books. Seth also runs a popular blog. ‘One short post published every day for almost 14 years’—dedication or obsessive disorder, perhaps both. The modestly built man with his shiny head and slightly ill-fitting suit stood on stage, captivating the massive audience at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center with his witty monologue.

My mind was a stir. Less than two hours earlier I had disgraced myself pretty badly, and now the scenes of shame would not stop replaying in my head.

If you’ve ever attempted to listen to your significant other talk while at the same time watching a thought-provoking documentary on YouTube, you might be able to relate to the state of mind I was currently in. Regardless of whether you can or not, for me to progress this story without coming off as extremely rude, I believe some explaining is in order.


Six hours before Seth had entered the stage, I was standing outside a training room. Being an Inbound marketer at Zooma, my interests going into this big annual marketing event differed somewhat from my three colleagues’, composed of two strategists/analysts and one project leader. The training course I had applied for promised to have me ‘knee-deep in code’ and targeted developers and designers who wanted to learn more in-depth about HubSpot’s content management system, or content optimization system—COS, as the company so cleverly calls it.

As I entered I could not help but take notice of how neat the registration process was: A staff member touched my ‘INBOUND 2015’ tag with her phone, and a subtle beep confirmed my attendance. The room was filled with a surprisingly mixed-gendered group of people, aged between early twenties to late sixties (no kidding) all enthusiastic and excited about learning the nitty-gritty of HubSpot.

It started well; the first fifteen minutes introduced us to the new tools and features that got me all excited. But from there on the training transformed into a long talk session. I listened to a panel of three developers talking about their respective companies’ experiences and practises on various subjects while thinking how little I was learning from this. To maintain my spirit, I tweeted out some occasional #inbound15 hashtagged updates on my weighty laptop—now turned luxury social media machine.

We approached the end of the training, and the last session would be a showcase. I guess the staff figured that instead of actually teaching or coaching people how to do the advanced stuff, it would be far more convenient just listing some examples. ‘Look, figure it out yourself.’

I wasn’t overly impressed by the showcase. I had been doing all of that and more during the past year, even before the documentation had become half as good as it was now. Was I supposed to be proud or disappointed?

‘I’m not exactly sure what the question is but I know that the answer is yes.’

The audience seemed to eat up every word Mr. Godin was uttering on stage. What did that quote even mean? I imagined the talk leading to some cliché conclusion like ‘Always be open to challenges,’ but I failed to understand the logic behind that line. What if the question was: ‘Are you dumb?’

The COS showcase session was finishing up, and the HubSpot representative now asked if anyone in the audience wanted to show something they had done with the system.

It was my chance to shine. I had worked on at least two big projects at my agency that I was fairly proud of in terms of technical complexity. The first project that came to mind was a business guide app, ‘Företagarguiden’ in Swedish, which contained some highly creative uses of the COS. The app boasted a large set of branching results based on the users’ choices, and we accomplished this by using the blog tool as a data source. It was also beautifully designed, which couldn’t be said of the majority of the websites shown so far.

I prepared myself to deliver the explaining, when I suddenly started to feel a bit cold. Was it the room? I noticed my arms were shivering. The air condition was blowing chill wind on my neck. I had only eaten a small sandwich from Starbucks before I had stressed my way to the training, so I was famished at this point. A hungry body is not a very cold resistant one.

It was totally shaking now. I could not sit still.

Am I nervous…?

What a ridiculous thought. I used to attend singing competitions in front of audiences much bigger than this—when I was younger—and I had also acted in a theatre play, with a lot of talking of course. Stage freight had never been a problem.

‘We would like to be let off the hook. The hook that says you’re responsible. We’d like to say, “This organisation does this, and I apologize but my boss won’t let me.” Of course your boss won’t let you! Your boss won’t let you, ’cause you’re coming to her saying “I’ve got this crazy idea, I wanna make this really big thing; if it works I get all the credit, if it doesn’t you’ll get the blame, because you said okay. Can I start?”’

I found that I related to most of the things Seth had said the past twenty minutes. On the other hand, I can also relate to my horoscope. Inspirational speeches tend to sound really empowering, until you realise that most of the time you’ve heard it all before, albeit phrased differently.

He employed a dramatic pause, an intentional one. When he had stopped earlier in his rapid style of speaking it had mostly been to catch his breath or to glimpse at his notes. He readied himself to deliver yet another punchline.

‘You’d like to come up and show us?’

A guy with a mohawk walked up to the podium and connected his laptop to the projector. He appeared confident. Which was puzzling as he repeatedly informed us that what he was showing us “was all work under construction’. I was baffled. How could he be proud of something that… rudimentary?

My trembling showed no signs of stopping and since no one else in the room seemed interested in sharing their work, the HubSpot staff began to wrap things up. Some people were already leaving.

Thinking back, it’s kind of bizarre how leaving a room could feel so regretful. I was equally disappointed as I was embarrassed over my inability to represent, over my unjustified conceit, and all the things that had never actually happened. My colleagues, accompanied by some of our Swedish friends and clients, were waiting less than two hundred metres down the hall, so I had to shake it off somehow. I had to silence my perplexed mind that was crying out for conclusions.

Maybe my work isn’t good enough. If it was, why would I be afraid of showing it? On the other hand, chances were that nobody would have understood it anyway; I could have failed miserably in my presentation.

One hour later, we sat in the front rows listening to the first keynote speech of the event. The man—unknown to me at the time—enlightened me on several aspects that evening, although this I would understand only long afterwards.

‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block, ’cause there’s no such thing as talker’s block. The reason that you’re getting writer’s block is because the lizard brain doesn’t want you to be responsible.’

It’s always easier to make sense out of things in retrospect, but while the past is observable, it can’t be changed—no matter how many times you rewind a story. I began writing on this piece when I returned to Sweden, but never could finish it; didn’t know how to end it, was insecure in my writing, afraid of criticism, and so on. Six months later I realised that, subconsciously, I was still searching for that conclusion.

I failed in Boston. That’s what I’ve been telling myself all this time. But how was that possible when I didn’t even have the courage to raise my hand and say ‘I have something’? No, only challengers fail. Challengers fail because they aren’t content with excuses and what ifs and they willingly take the risk, because for them, failure is not an end but a beginning. A failure, is the receipt that they’ve tried.

Finishing this story might not tie any loose ends up, but it serves as a strong reminder—a proof—that I can be, and I am, a challenger.

How about you? Do you dare to fail? If not, what’s your excuse today?

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Click here to watch Seth Godin’s speech at INBOUND 2015.

Yeu-Kang Hua
Generalist-specialist in digital experiences, or a hybrid designer-developer if you must pigeonhole. Curiosity is Kang’s trademark and a curse.
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