Jonathan Kalan, a TED resident and co-founder of Unsettled, the first global housing community for creatives, entrepreneurs, and independent workers, discusses reframing failure, calculated risks, and trusting the process.
When I first reached out to ask for an interview, you told me that you don't really consider anything that you do to be a failure, but instead an opportunity for growth. Can you elaborate on that?
I know that it's kind of an interesting mindset to have or maybe not, but I don't consider anything that I've done in life to be a failure. I think that there are things that I could have obviously been better at or that could've gone differently, but I think that at the end of the day life is a process. Life is an experiment and everything that you do is about understanding how that process works and experimenting to figure out what works for you and what works in general. I believe that everything that you do and every risk that you take is really just an opportunity for learning. Learning how to do it differently. Learning how to do it better. Luckily I haven't ended up flat on my ass, totally broke, and without any options. I think there are cases where that can happen, but if you're pretty calculated about your risks and the things that you take on, whatever failures come your way will tend to just make you more aware, stronger, and more capable of what it is that you're going to do next.
How have "failures" propelled you in business?
It's hard because I never really look back. I look back to reflect and understand what we did, but I think that I always tend to look forward. That's just how my mindset is in sort of an optimistic way. There is always another option and way to move forward. So when it comes to how has failure propelled me, I think that it's given me the ability to have a better understanding of myself, a business, a market, and it gives me the chance to get better everyday in some sense. Like I said, it's hard and when I look back at some of the things that I've done, I wouldn't really consider anything that I've done a failure. Maybe it's that I haven't taken a big enough risk to fail. I'm a risk taker, but I'm very calculated in how I do it. I'm always strategic and have backup plans in case things don't work out. You know, I look at it more as failure of my leadership or failure of my ability to be clear of a vision or failure to communicate something failure. I think those are the most common failures where isn't the thing that failed, but it is your abilities and that's just part of learning.
I think at my last company, I wasn't as strong of a leader as I should have been. Did we fail? No, but could we have gotten things done a lot faster and more efficiently and moved into the right direction sooner? Yea, probably. Have I taken those lessons to what I do now? Absolutely.
"It's all about small leaps and taking small steps. If you frame it that way then sure you can make little failures, but it's not like one big, spectacular thing that has collapsed."
Speaking of risk, what would you say is the biggest risk that you've ever taken?
We just did a podcast for these guys called Ten Thousand Hours and it's all about us taking the leap to start this company. I didn't really feel like it was a big risk. My business partner and I spent a week going over our values, what was important to us, prioritizing our values, the things that we had learned and wanted to learn, and our growth trajectory for the next five years. It didn't feel like a leap. It just felt like one step. It's all about small leaps and taking small steps. If you frame it that way then sure you can make little failures, but it's not like one big, spectacular thing that has collapsed.
I think the biggest one that I took was moving to Africa when I was 22. I just basically picked up and moved to Tanzania to help some woman run a social enterprise and I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted to be a photojournalist and I just went for it. I ate rice and beans for a year and I lived in a kitchen cupboard for a year because I didn't want to pay full rent. I did all sorts of things to make it work and after a couple of years, I'd built up a pretty successful career.
"I think in most cases if somebody's taking a leap, even if it doesn't end up where you think it will, you'll end up a better person, having more experience, learning more, and you'll end up in a further along place on the growth scale than when you began."
That is absolutely amazing! What would you tell someone who is afraid of taking the leap?
One, understand your process. So look back on your life and think about how you have handled change, how you have handled risk, and how you have handled taking small or big leaps before. Learn and understand your own process.
Second thing is to trust yourself and trust your process because you're still on this Earth, you're still alive, you're still breathing. If you're able to take a leap, that means that you are in a position to actually do something different which a lot of people aren't. I think that in many cases you are successful already by being able to exist on this Earth and be a part of society. So think about trusting your process and trusting yourself to be able to make the right decision.
Number three is really evaluating what is the worst that could happen. Really, seriously think about if I do this, what happens if it doesn't work out? Am I still further along than I began? Great! Is there any chance that I could be further back in terms of what I've learned and what my opportunities and abilities are. I think in most cases if somebody's taking a leap, even if it doesn't end up where you think it will, you'll end up a better person, having more experience, learning more, and you'll end up in a further along place on the growth scale than when you began. I think that in and of itself is worth the leap even if you don't land where you expected to.