Failure before Success


Many people came up to me after my recent Big Show presentations and told me that I must write down my life story of failures and successes – upon their request below is a brief summary of a first draft:

It was on 1 May, 1975, a bright spring day in Sweden, that against almost all odds, I was born. It was International Workers’ Day, the day that marks the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, and a brass band was marching past the hospital window. The day pointed to me perhaps becoming a labourer in my later life – someone who is not afraid of hard work.

Failure Before Success

I began life with few advantages.  I grew up in Nybro, a small country town with a population of just 20,000. My family was typically working class. My father, Hans, worked in construction and Anita, my mother, stayed at home to care for me. I did not attend kindergarten or nursery school like the other children. At the age of three the birth of my sister, Sara, meant I was no longer the sole focus of my parents’ attention, but life was fun. The house was always full of happiness, love and laughter and I enjoyed the freedom my parents’ afforded me. At the age of six I began to attend pre-school. This was a small shock as I was not really used to being told what to do. All of a sudden I was in a class with 15 other children being told what to do all day, every day. I can remember that even at a young age, I did not appreciate being dictated to. I wanted to do things in my own way. My parents quickly realized that I was not just another child. I had a strong will and challenged everything I was told.

It was at the age of 10 that life began to get really exciting. I found out that I was incredibly good at making money. I began to sell lottery tickets, my sister’s cartoon books, my mother’s flower plants, bird food, Christmas magazines, Sunday newspapers – anything I could lay my hands on. By the age of 12 I had become one of the country’s best paid sales people at Hem, a direct sales company selling magazines. By 13 I had started my own business selling computers and video games out of my father’s garage – just like Bill Gates! It was 1985 and I was bringing in more than USD 1000 each month – more than any of the other children my age could ever dream of making.

I was riding high when, at 14, my parents decided to move to Kalmar, a larger city. I was unhappy to leave my high school friends behind and disappointed to have to give up my successful computer business. The move affected me deeply, and almost overnight I went from being a good student to being one of the worst performers in the class. I became distracted, got sidetracked from my passion for sales and business, and ended up hanging around with other poorly-performing students. I began racing motorbikes, smoking, drinking and staying out late with my friends.

At the age of 15 I was required to choose a major for my final two years at high school. I went to my parents for advice on which subject to choose. I needed something that would provide me with the skills and qualifications that would ensure I would get a job after graduating. Because my father was in construction, he told me my best bet was training to be a construction painter as he had connections and would be able to help me get a job.

Two years after moving to Kalmar I was training to become a professional painter. I was settling down, had made a group of more suitable friends and was concentrating more on my school assignments. I was even making plans for living independently from my family and making my own money.

Then disaster struck. During my final year at high school a fire ripped through our house and burnt it to the ground. We lost everything. My family had to start over. The four of us moved into a small hotel room and I was devastated by the fact my parents had lost everything they owned. My mother was even fired from her sewing job because her bosses thought she would no longer be able to focus on both her work and building our home from scratch. Although I was incredibly thankful no one I loved was hurt in the fire, I recall feeling strangely embarrassed about what had happened and started to lose my self confidence.

I graduated high school at 18 and immediately began work as a construction painter. I worked as many hours as I could to earn as much money as possible and a regular pay packet meant I could move into my own apartment. I also managed to put money aside for holidays. However, this meant working all the hours I could for 11 months of the year in exchange for one month enjoying life. Although my independence was helping me to regain my self confidence and get my life back on track I did not have the time to concentrate on my personal development or learn new skills.

I was 19 when I crashed my motorbike into a car. The accident resulted in severe whiplash to my neck. Although I was able to return to work after a few days of rest I was still in pain. I continued to work as a painter for the next two years but found that I was taking more and more time off work as a result of my injury. In the end I was told by my doctor that the problem was not going to get better as long as I remained in a physically demanding job like painting. He advised me to change career. This was a huge blow because painting was the only work I was qualified to do. But sometimes the only way to change our situation is to be forced to do it. Later I realized that it was the best thing that could have happened as leaving manual labour behind forced me to examine other options. I decided to revisit the sales skills I had developed when I was younger.

My first step was to apply for administrative jobs in the painting industry including being a supervisor. However, my limited experience in the field meant my applications were rejected. I tried various office positions, but again I was rejected. Eventually I was contacted by a Norwegian oil and gas company looking for painting instructors for a large project in Dubai. They were interested in me because I had qualifications in epoxy painting and other dangerous jobs. Unfortunately I was rejected because my level of spoken English wasn’t up to scratch.

By now I was running low on money as well as self-confidence. My sick pay allowance was not enough to live on and I decided I had to do something drastic. I made the decision to return to school and was accepted onto an adult high school education course in order to improve my grades and enrol in mathematics and English, subjects I had not studied at high school. At adult high school, most of my grades were very good, but I was still performing poorly in my English classes. I knew that in order to get a good job I would need to do something about my language skills.

I applied for a three-month English course at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast. This was a big step for me as university had never been a topic of discussion when I was growing up. For me and my peers life was supposed to be about getting a job and pulling in a salary, not getting a degree.

Having completed the English course at Bond I decided to stay on and study for a Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s. It was tough going and my English skills continued to let me down. There were several times when I thought I had made the wrong decision to continue my education. However, my grades began to pick up and it was while I was completing my studies that I was approached by a family in the fashion industry.

I was offered the opportunity of becoming a partner in their business. I accepted, quit university and moved back to Europe. Unfortunately attempts to try and develop the business in London failed and I returned to Sweden, aged 25, broke and homeless. Seven years after moving away I was back living with my parents.

My self-confidence was at rock bottom and I regret to say I even entertained thoughts of ending it all. I began painting again and after a few months was earning enough money to allow me to move into a windowless room the size of a cupboard in my friend’s apartment, but at least I was no longer dependent on my parents. I disliked my job since it gave me pain in my neck and back and spent instead too much time at the pub. Living day to day was making me lose hope when, one night, I met a girl in a club. Her name was Sofi, the girl who would help me get my life back on track and one day become my wife.

We decided to use what money we had to spend three months travelling through Southeast Asia together. After returning to Sweden I got back in contact with Bond University. Sofi persuaded me of the importance of finishing my degree and I was lucky enough to be offered a second chance. She was also able to transfer her university course from Sweden, and in 2001 we both boarded a plane for Australia. More determined than ever to succeed I threw myself into my studies, received a scholarship and graduated aged 29 as the top student in both my both my Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and Master’s Degree in Public Relations. I also began working for the university marketing department, helping them to recruit students. My self confidence was riding at a new high.

It was around this time that I came across a news story that affected me deeply. A seven-year-old Australian boy who was battling leukaemia had been robbed. I wanted to help and as President of the University golf club I was able to organise two charity golf days to help replace the AUD 300 that had been stolen. The second fundraiser alone pulled in more than USD 18,500! For this work I was awarded the prestigious “2004 Golden State Award for Excellence” by the Queensland government. As well as having an extraordinary impact on the local community, the project thought me that by using my leadership skills I could make a real difference.

Having a degree really changed things for me in terms of getting a job. I accepted a position in Public Relations with a company in Bangkok, Thailand. Unfortunately life in the city was not easy for Sofi. She was in a poorly-paid job and really wanted to work in a more professional environment in a western city. She accepted a position at a leading auditing firm in London where she could also study to become a certified accountant. Being apart from each other was far from ideal, so I quit my job and joined my wife.

I was 31 when I arrived in London. Although having to once again adjust to a new environment was stressful, and I still felt at times that my English was letting me down, I was delighted to find that instead of being flatly refused when applying for work I was being asked in for interviews. Following a stint freelancing for electronics giant Philips I secured a full time job with a PR agency. Sofi and I now both had good careers and were living a good life in one of the greatest cities in the world.

Then one morning, while playing squash, everything suddenly changed. The cracking sound of a shotgun being fired, extreme pain and the feeling my leg had gone through the floor of the court meant my Achilles tendon had snapped. I was rushed to hospital in agony and told I would have to spend at least eight weeks with a cast on my foot. I then had to spend months on crutches learning to walk again. This made my work almost impossible. I was in business development and supposed to be out networking and meeting as many people as possible. The inevitable result was that my meetings became fewer, I was not pulling in enough new clients, and I was politely asked to resign. I found myself cast into the unknown once more.

Luckily Swedish cosmetics company Oriflame was searching for Future Managing Directors at the time and I was invited to apply. After a number of tough interviews I beat thousands of other applicants and offered a position based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My Achilles was recovering well, my walking was improving and I was excited about my new job.

Oriflame was keen to get me started as soon as possible and asked me to fly to Nepal to attend a regional MD meeting. In April 2007 I boarded a flight from London to Kathmandu and a new start. But things are never that easy. I was in my hotel room doing my Achilles exercises when I fell to the floor in pain. My tendon had snapped again. I was supposed to be returning to London to pack up my belongings and move to a new life in Vietnam. Instead I was lying on a hotel room floor in Nepal unable to move. What was I going to tell my new company? Should I even mention this? I had left my crutches in London so I phoned reception and asked for a wheelchair.

Back in London I was examined by a doctor who told me my Achilles tendon had completely ruptured and that I would need major surgery. After a week of agonizing pain I was in theatre where the doctor told me my knee would be put in plaster after the operation. When I woke up I was surprised to find that not just my knee, but my whole leg from my toes to my thigh was in a cast. When I was able to talk to a doctor he told me the severity of the rupture had made the surgery complicated. The surgeon had cut my leg open from my heel to the back of my knee. I was told my Achilles tendon was now shorter than before and I would have to undergo a lengthy period of rehabilitation. I was also told it was unlikely that I would be able to walk on my own again for at least a year and that I would never again be able to run. I explained that I had to move to Vietnam in two weeks time and he told me it would be impossible for me to take a flight that soon, since my leg would be swollen and infected and the air pressure at altitude could trigger a blood clot. Flying could kill me.

After three days in hospital I was allowed to go home. As well as worrying about my leg I was fretting over what I should tell work. I rewrote an email over and over explaining the situation, which I never sent. Instead I called the hospital and asked for an appointment with my surgeon.

I explained to him that there was no way I was not going to be in Vietnam in May to start my new job. I then asked him to tell me how to minimise the travel risks. He called in another consultant, a specialist who also tried to persuade me to delay the journey. However I was adamant that I would be on the flight in a fortnight and asked again how I could minimize the risk of a blood clot. He, quite rightly, told me that as a doctor he could not offer advice on what would be a life threatening risk. Frustrated I returned home and booted up Google. I discovered that it was important to keep my leg elevated and drink a great deal of water. The advice looked sound so I emailed my boss and told him I would be arriving in Ho Chi Minh City as scheduled.

I called the airline to book my flight, but was dismayed to find that they would not allow me to board so soon after surgery with my whole leg in plaster. I was told I could not fly unless I was able to demonstrate that I could move my leg, something that is obviously impossible in a full cast.

One of the ideas I came up with to solve the problem was to saw my cast into two halves and link the pieces together with Velcro. I would then be able to separate the halves when on the plane and move my leg. To my astonishment the hospital agreed to help me do this! I could now move my leg. I double checked the rest of the airlines rules on passengers travelling with injuries and booked a one-way ticket out of London. I didn’t inform them of my injury, intending to prove I could move my limb if questioned. The days leading up to the flight were tense. I knew the airline still might not let me fly. Or worse, I could develop deep vein thrombosis (a potentially fatal blood clot in my leg).

I arrived at check-in on crutches with my cast hidden by baggy jeans. My heart was racing and I was praying no one would stop me. In the end the only question I was asked was if I wanted a wheelchair. I gratefully accepted. Settling into a flat-bed seat I thought to myself I had made it. However, I now had to survive the flight. A stewardess helped me elevate my leg with pillows and gave me water to drink. The flight was one of the longest I have ever taken. The 12 hours to Bangkok felt like a month! When the captain announced we were approaching the airport my heart began to race and I broke out in a cold sweat. The descent is the most dangerous part of the flight as the change in air pressure can release any blood clot that has formed. I removed my cast and began to massage my swollen leg. I admit that this was one of the loneliest and scariest moments of my entire life. Time seemed to stand still. The relief of eventually touching down was enormous, although I knew I had to go through it all again on the flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City.

I arrived safely in the Vietnam heat and turned my thoughts to getting my Velcro-strapped cast replaced with something more sensible. At a hospital in the city my cast was removed and the doctor informed me that my leg had become heavily infected. The stress of the flight, the air pressure and my makeshift cast had caused part of my foot to become infected too and I needed urgent surgery. I woke up with a brand new cast on my leg, relieved but wondering whether the whole thing was ever going to end. It was a Sunday and I was due to start my new job the very next day. I arrived, said nothing, and focused on giving 100% to my new assignment.

Vietnam is hot. Getting around in 35 degree heat on crutches with a leg in plaster is challenging to say the least. As Area Sales Manager I was required to travel to events all over the country. However I loved what I was doing. Unfortunately, it was not just my leg that was suffering but my health. My blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol levels were too high and I was rapidly gaining weight. I was also having problems with my boss who seemed to be constantly having other opinions than me. It was only a matter of time before I was asked to resign – and I did.

The disappointment of having to quit a job I enjoyed coincided with the joy of being told by Sofi that I was going to be a father. Unfortunately she was also about to come to the end of her job contract. Suddenly we were to become a family with no job, no income, no social security and no medical insurance for the baby. I panicked and my head was in a spin.

Remembering that my boss at the PR firm I had worked for in Bangkok had once talked about setting up an agency in Vietnam, I gave him a call. He agreed to fly over for a meeting. We both agreed it would be a good idea with him taking care of the capital investment and me investing the time.  My home living room became my office and we recruited three staff. In less than half-a-year we had a number of clients and were already breaking even. However, during the Chinese New Year everything suddenly went quiet. My baby was due and my PR company had no new business. My partner and investor called to tell me I would have to carry on without his financial support. I was about to become a family – I had to find a paid job!

A few weeks earlier a headhunter had asked me if I was interested in a PR consultant position that had opened up in HCMC. I called back and was told the job was still available if I wanted it. I accepted the offer despite low pay, but enough to provide a financial cushion and on 20 February 2009 our beautiful son Percy was born. Becoming a father is not easy, but for me the situation seemed more difficult because our families were back in Sweden. We had to work everything out for ourselves. I had to return to work a day after Percy was born and was feeling burnt out. My blood pressure was high, I was stressed and I felt unhealthy. I was struggling to make ends meet and the fourth day of my son’s life was celebrated by us moving into a smaller, cheaper house.

But there is always something around the corner. I was contacted by another headhunter about a job as Business Development Manager with International SOS. They were offering a better salary, housing allowance and medical insurance. How could I refuse? I loved the job. I had a fantastic boss, nice colleagues and was popular. Almost immediately I was getting excellent results and smashing all my new business targets. This job was a gift and I was not going to leave unless something much better came along. And eventually it did.

Sophie Paris contacted me out of the blue in December 2009, looking for a General Director to set up the company in Vietnam. It sounded like a great challenge, and one that I was up for. I have now been working with them for three years. It has been an amazing journey and I have been responsible for everything from getting the business license, sourcing and renovating locations, recruiting and training the team of 100 staff in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Danang. This job has completely changed my life.

Since joining Sophie Paris my self confidence has returned along with my pride, and these days I feel great. I have lost weight and completed my first half marathon through the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in just 2 hours and six minutes in December 2012 – and I was told by doctors that I never would be able to run again! This race was a stepping stone to my ultimate goal of running a full marathon, something I have promised myself I will do before I turn 40.

At the end of last year I also finally overcame my fear of speaking in public. A few months earlier I was approached by Quach Tuan Khanh, widely recognised as Vietnam’s top public speaker. He asked if I would be interested in joining him as a key speaker at the Big Show, the largest public speaking event in Vietnam last year. Although the idea was daunting, and I had arranged to spend Christmas with my family in Sweden, I knew the chance was just too big to turn down. I cancelled my travel plans and started researching topics I felt qualified to present. Together Quach Tuan Khanh and I decided my subject should be ‘Failure Before Success’. I am no stranger to adversity and I have had my fair share of failures, as you have read. However, I have always tried to rise above them, learn from them, and turn those failures into success.

It was after my final major presentation to a crowd of 800 in HCMC that I realised I was facing my fear of speaking to large numbers of strangers and winning. Following my talk I was thrilled to be asked to pose for photos with members of the audience and sign autographs. I was also asked to sign books. They even asked me to write down my story and thus this piece of writing. Many of the people I met on the tour were moved to tears and thanked me for inspiring them. The feeling was incredible and I have had endless emails, phone calls and texts since. I cannot describe how proud I feel to have been an inspiration to others or how thankful I am not to have let my fear of public speaking beat me.

Life is good. I enjoy my job and am healthier than ever and firmly focused on the future. What life has ultimately taught is that you sometimes have to fail before you succeed.

Like this article?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on Linkdin
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest

About Nick Jonsson:

Co-founder and Managing Director at Executives’ Global Network (EGN) Singapore – Confidential Peer Network | #1 International Bestselling Author with “Executive Loneliness” | Keynote Speaker | Triathlon Athlete | Mental Health and Well-being Enthusiast and Educator.

Featured Podcast:

On this week’s Leadership Launchpad Project podcast, Nick Jonsson, Co-founder at EGN- Asia’s #1 Executive Peer Network, IRONMAN Top 1% …

Take a deep look into the perspective of senior executives and business owners.

Understand how the best leaders develop their personal skills, overcome challenges, and seize the opportunities to grow themselves and their companies.

Discover topics including leadership, diversity & inclusion, mental health, digital transformation, sustainability, working culture, and the future of work.

You might also like:

August 31th, EGN Managing Director, Nick Jonsson, was attending the ceremony of Entrepreneur 100 Award 2021 by the Association …

A poll of Singaporeans has revealed insights into why they are resigning from their current jobs, and where …

In celebrating our mental health and those who champion it, we would like to share that the Managing Director …

August 31th, EGN Managing Director, Nick Jonsson, was attending the ceremony of Entrepreneur 100 Award 2021 by the Association …

A poll of Singaporeans has revealed insights into why they are resigning from their current jobs, and where …

In celebrating our mental health and those who champion it, we would like to share that the Managing Director …

A special feature powered by Ferrari (Portfolio Magazine Singapore, Outlook 2022: Part 5/ March 3) EGN Managing Director, …

Managing Director of EGN Singapore, Nick Jonsson, is shortlisted as a finalist in the 2022 InsideOut Awards for …

Nick Jonsson, co-founder and managing director of EGN Singapore, is also the author of Executive Loneliness: The 5 …

Nick Jonsson with EGN Singapore won the Entrepreneurs 100 Award 2021: Singapore’s Emerging Entrepreneurs of the year. On an …

Recent changes in our work environments and psychological needs have accelerated the rise of a new core leadership …

EGN’s Managing Director, Nick Jonsson, was featured in The Business Times Views From The Top  alongside other executives …

We are proud to announce that our Managing Director, Nick Jonsson, is selected and published in the Candid …

Men for change – (Women Icons Network) Gender equality must start from home before it seeps into the …

World Kindness Day

In 2020, I made a bold move to tell the world how executive loneliness a few years earlier …