Mary McNeil: Using ‘failure’ as a catalyst for positive change.

Prime Time Business Women in ActionApparently Albert Einstein once described failure as ‘success in progress‘ (love that!), but for most of us, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we’re able to view past disappointments from a more positive perspective!

As we all know through often bitter experience, failure is an unavoidable part of life, shaping who we are and what we do… and yet it’s not something we choose to dwell on too much because quite frankly, it hurts!

Mary McNeil

Mary McNeil

It’s natural to become disheartened when things don’t go as planned but failure can also be an energising catalyst for change. In this
edition of Prime Time Business Women In Action, I’m in conversation with Mary McNeil, who talks candidly about how her own painful setbacks and perceived  ‘failures’ prompted some unscripted but positive changes, culminating in the creation of a business she loves.


So, welcome Mary! Let’s kick off with you telling us a little bit about yourself and your business.

Yes, thank you. Well, I like to call myself a marketing systems creator and the strap line I use is that I provide hands-on digital marketing support to entrepreneur business owners – which is actually a bit of a mouthful!

The people I work with have a pretty good idea of the online marketing basics but find it can be quite stressful and time consuming to set it all up, so what I aim to do is to take away all that sort of stress which in turn frees them to focus on the important work – the work they do for their clients… without getting derailed by the detail.

Now I’m guessing this isn’t what you started off doing, Mary… how did you end up as a marketing systems creator?

Well that’s a good question… and brings us right on to what we’re talking about today – I ended up here through a number of perceived failures! My first corporate career was in the travel industry as a flight planner – so something very different – which I loved for a long time but reached a point failure-is-success-in-progresswhere I actually went through a burnout in effect, and I had to step away from it. That’s probably the first point where I would to ask myself, ‘Did I fail at my corporate career?’

But in the process of doing so I was able to set up my own business and fortunately for me, I was able to take a redundancy package and do some retraining which was actually a wonderful thing! This was all about 14 years ago now, and I retrained in 2 things – as a website designer and as a life coach.

It’s so much easier with hindsight isn’t it? When we look back we can sort of ‘follow the crumbs’ which led us to where we are now… and I think you’ve just shown us two crumbs!

Well, I’ve got another crumb! I spent a few years trying to make it either as a website design or as a life coach…. or as some kind of combination of the two…. or splitting my time half and half between the two. Neither was working for me and so once again I thought I failed – at both – and I needed to move on and do something different. But before I did that, I realized that part of that perceived failure was because I wasn’t marketing myself well enough, and I needed to go away and learn about online marketing. So I enrolled on a year-long programme and immersed myself in all that and in the process of doing this I came across any number of other coaches and trainers who said,

‘You know about this stuff! You’re obviously good at it, would you do it for me?’

At which point I thought, yes, I rather enjoy doing this and I could do this for other people. It came to me – I didn’t go and seek it… not consciously.

So all these threads – these ‘crumbs’ – these things that I thought didn’t stand alone and I couldn’t make a living out of, gradually all wove themselves together rather wonderfully!

So with hindsight you can actually see how episodes of perceived failure like this always seem to turn around and prove themselves to be the building block for the next step up and the next piece of clarity or connection.

I really appreciate your willingness to discuss your ‘failures’ so openly, Mary. It’s a topic many don’t want to talk about… possibly because they’re nervous of it somehow reflecting negatively on where they are now?

Yes, I think that can be the case. I think also, once you’ve got past viewing it as a failure, you almost forget that was the case, and actually, I think it’s worth remembering that that’s how you felt and that’s what you thought because it comes around again. There are cycles – there’s an up cycle and there’s a down cycle. Knowing that you felt like this before is a very helpful piece of knowledge and awareness to get you through feeling low and feeling demotivated… or that you’re never going to get another client again, and that actually there is a purpose for this and it will take you on to the next thing, which will be step up.

I think that’s a really good way to look at it. For me, I prefer to think of my past perceived failures more as ‘misalignments’ – you know, where I maybe found myself in the wrong place or where I felt like a square peg in a round hole… those sorts of situations. But actually, I can now see that those misalignments always contributed to a bit of an internal re-alignment which consequently became the catalyst that set me on a different path which ultimately led me to a place I’m very happy to be. Does that make sense?

Yes, yes absolutely! Catalyst is a great word for it – I like that word! When I was making my list of perceived failures in preparation for our conversation I was reminded of a more recent failure where I was working for a client helping her with Facebook advertising – which I thought I was quite good at –  and she came to me and said, “Well actually, I don’t want you to do this anymore because I’ve found someone better!” And that wasn’t very comfortable!

But it was a catalyst because it certainly spurred me on! I went out there and boy did I learn a lot more about Facebook advertising…. and quite a bit of it from the person my client replaced me with! I signed up for a little training course with her – I thought, I’m not going to take offence, I’m just going to get out there and I’m going to learn!

And so the Facebook advertising that I do now is way better than what I was doing back then and this sort of rejection, or failure, actually pushed me to get better at what I was doing. It was painful but it was helpful!

jk-rowling-on-failureThat’s really reminds me of a favourite J.K. Rowling quote: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Our failures become a catalyst for learning, change or personal development or growth…so it’s always better to give things a try and risk failing than not try at all.

Yes and I think we know this in our personal lives but it’s sometimes hard to apply it to business. You know you go through phases of life but actually, you go through phases of business too. It’s well to remember that a business is a living thing and it goes through these cycles of change as well.

I don’t know if this is true for you Mary, but when I look back the two are very much linked – my personal evolution is very much tied up with my business evolution as well – as I’ve changed, so my focus in business has changed too…. and that’s all to the good!

You know, I think that’s one of the beauties of running your own business. If you’re stuck in corporate land, sometimes you’re changing but there is no way that what you’re doing is going to change with you, so you get a lot more friction there. Whereas when it’s your business and you’re shaping it, it can keep evolving with you.

Oh absolutely! And that takes us back to what we were saying before about personal changes and internal realignments. As you’ve just said, when there is a mismatch between who you are and your working environment and you suddenly realize you don’t want to be there or do that anymore, because you’re not that person any more… those things are very often the catalyst that leads us to actually start our own business.

It certainly can, yes.

Well thank you so much Mary and I hope that people will take heart when they listen to this and perhaps review their past failures and see them in a more positive light… as stepping stones to their success!

Yes and you never know, what you might be doing now or might be uncomfortable with now, is actually a crumb leading you somewhere or to something!

Thank you – I’ve really enjoyed talking with you Mary and your details are below this interview so people can find out more about you and how you can help them with their online marketing but for now, thank you very much and I wish you all the very best in your business.



How about you?

Do you have stories to share of past failures that prompted some unscripted changes and set you off along a new and different path? Or disappointments that turned into opportunities?

Please share your thoughts and experience by leaving a comment below.



Mary McNeil: Using ‘failure’ as a catalyst for positive change. — 2 Comments

  1. “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

    What a great quote! I’ll be having this one up in my office somewhere.

    ‘Failing’ is indeed an inevitable part of our journey towards successful self-employment – you might also look at it as ‘feedback’ on how you can do things differently next time. I love that you were able to use the feedback from your client as fuel for your own learning and growth, Mary.

    Thanks for sharing so openly, and for a great interview Karen.
    Linda Anderson recently posted…[Video] Inner Critic driving you crazy?My Profile

    • I love that quote too Linda! And as you so rightly pointed out, there’s really no such thing as failure, only feedback. Mary’s story was an important reminder that what we think of as ‘failure’ is all part of life’s rich tapestry! I’m now reframing all my past disappointments as success in progress!

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