How to Change the World (After 15 Years of Failure)

I told people many times that I’ve been a failure for 15 years. In 1992 I tried to start an international newsletter about dance music, and I failed. In 1994 I tried to launch a game development company, and I failed. I spent 3 years writing bookkeeping software, but I sold it to only a few customers. In 1997 I started a software company (with a friend), which was successful for a while. But eventually, together with the parent company, it collapsed. Just like the dozen or so relationships I had in that decade.

The first signs of change arrived in 1999, when I started an Internet startup that produced games charts. My idea was so impressive that I won a national award for it. Unfortunately, my team and I couldn’t find any customers. It collapsed as well. And I will spare you the many failures between 2000 and 2008, which included a book, a cartoon, a blog, another book, and several original but doomed software projects. Everything always failed.

Do you see the pattern? I certainly did.

Did I give up? Of course not.

After 2008, for some inexplicable reasons, things have changed. My blog is a success. My book is a success. My course seems to be a success. And my relationship fared well enough that I decided to get married. And now the ALE network is doing fine as well.

Last week someone asked me, “What has changed?”

Indeed, I’ve been wondering about that too…

Did some gods take pity on me? Have I already exhausted my lifetime supply of failure? Is fate playing some cruel tricks on me?

I have no idea.

The only thing I can say is, I now spend much more time learning how to be better. And it seems to be paying off…

But whatever the reasons, after so many failed attempts at making ideas work, I picked up a thing or two about being a somewhat successful but certainly very persistent change agent. I added my suggestions to this new presentation. I hope it helps you to have fewer failures than I had.

p.s. I’ve been told that I’m arrogant. And I leave it to others to decide if that’s true. But from my own perspective I just feel more confident about what I can do, and how to do it. Given my extensive track record of learning experiences, I think that’s not a bad thing. 🙂

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  • rrubio74

    and how much weight you gained during these 15 years?

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Only 10 kilograms!

  • Chris Matts

    Good to meet you last week.
    I recognise the pattern you describe in my own life. Being open to learning means being prepared to accept that you are wrong. That is scary. I have found that laziness is a great trait to develop. Its a good trait to allign your own goals with those of the organisation. You quickly learn humbleness and the skill of asking for help. I was lucky enough to learn from a master of lazy who worked for me.
    As for arrogant, I’ll let you know when you get started on the path. 😉
    P.S. Love the wedding photos. Very cool.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Humbleness? Now there’s a challenge for the next decade! 😉

  • StefanBilliet

    Jurgen, I find that to aim for success, one needs a modicum of arrogance. For what else is arrogance, but a varying degree of self-confidence 🙂
    It even seems the built-in OS X dictionary agrees with me:
    “Arrogance: the quality of being arrogant”

  • Tammy Sheffield

    Great! Interested in the concept of the happy door, what do the level indicate? Assuming, 1 not happy and 5 happy, with team members posting something that is working for them or they are happy about with regard to the process and/or their job?

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Hello Tammy,
    The Feedback Door is described here:

  • Lub Lub

    Dear Jurgen,
    I loved this blog entry. Honest, open, and humble. I would not ever be able to believe that what you’re doing is arrogant. What you’re doing is excellent advertisement – and that is essential. In the words of Hugh Macleod (, “Ignore Everyone”. Someday, I’d like to start a consultancy of my own, and a blog much like yours – to share, to teach, to unlearn things to learn new things, to make mistakes, and to bounce back and tell the world how it has changed (even if a little), because of a few things I might have done. Three cheers.
    – Lub Lub

  • Jerry

    Thanks for the nice presentation. I have the following doubt.
    what is the difference between the system (slide 14) and environment (slide 17)? Are both are not same? Could you please explain little more of this two? I am not clear on this.
    Thanks again.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    The system and the environment are opposites. What is part of the system is not part of the environment, and vice versa.
    For example, I consider my team members to be the system. I consider the coffee place where we have meetings to be the environment.
    But it’s always subjective: a matter of personal view and choice.

  • Cedric

    your article reminds me a Jules Renard (Classic French Writer, dead in 1910) quote :
    “Il y a des moments où tout réussit. Il ne faut pas s’effrayer. Ca passe.
    There are some times when you succeed in everything. You shouldn’t be afraid. It pass. (approximative translation from me)

  • Cedric

    Hum I should write “It goes” instead of “It pass”.

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