How to survive the wilderness years

‘I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.’  Sylvester Stallone

The phrase ‘the wilderness years’ was used by entrepreneur Rachel Elnaugh in her book Business Nightmares to refer to the phase following a major failure in an entrepreneur’s life. I think the phrase can apply equally well to any legacy creators after their legacy project fails. Indeed, this phrase has also been used as the title of a TV drama series outlining the life of Winston Churchill between when he lost his cabinet position in 1929 and 1939, when he joined Great Britain’s War Cabinet. Churchill has often described this as the most difficult period of his life.

But back to Rachel Elnaugh. Rachel founded her business (Red Letter Days) in her mid-twenties, building it into a multi-million pound enterprise over a period of 16 years. As a result of her business acumen and her PR contacts, Rachel became the original female Dragon on the BBC’s cult show Dragon’s Den, and thus one of the highest-profile women entrepreneurs in the UK. However, while filming the second series of the show, and heavily pregnant with her fourth child, Rachel’s business spectacularly collapsed. Rachel lost absolutely everything she had worked so long and hard for, and given her high media profile she also had to endure many months of public humiliation.

Rachel describes the wilderness years as having hit rock bottom, but also as a period that gradually allowed her to reinvent her family life and change direction in terms of her work. She also talks about the spiritual growth that losing everything has led to, and the new opportunities that presented themselves to her (such as writing Business Nightmares, developing a track record as a public speaker, and starting a new venture aimed at providing support to those in the small business sector). I had a brief exchange of emails with Rachel a couple of years ago, during her wilderness years, and was overwhelmed by her kindness and generosity. Here’s a link to Rachel’s blog, if you would like to find out how her life story after the wilderness years is evolving.

In Business Nightmares, Rachel uses her own experience to offer six pieces of advice in relation to surviving the wilderness years (I have adapted Rachel’s points to suit legacy projects in general):

1. Allow yourself time to grieve. Don’t try to get back on the horse straight away.

2. Ask for help. In times of desperate need, don’t be ashamed to ask people for help.

3. Keep open-minded. Your next legacy project may be in a totally different field. Keep your mind open to all opportunities.

4. Try to see your failure as a vital part of your personal growth. Easier said than done, I know. But in time, you will see that the failure has led you to a place which is much more rewarding and fulfilling.

5. De-clutter your life. Clear out everything else in your life which is no longer working e.g. posessions, friendships, habits or ways of thinking.

6. Adopt an attitude of gratitude. Rather than focusing on everything you may have lost, focus on the things you still have. Your new attitude will help you see that we are all surrounded by the most amazing world of abundance and possibility.

Rachel‘s story (and those of several other entrepreneurs she talks about in her book) is testimony that the failure of your legacy project can have a positive impact on your attitude to life. As long as you are determined to create legacy over the course of your life, you can start other legacy projects after the wilderness phase is over, and be in a much better position to succeed. Just don’t give up on your goal to create legacy, and take advantage of all that the wilderness years have to offer.

The time is now.

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Alexa Ispas

I am a social entrepreneur, blogger, and talent scout, interested in helping people who want to create legacy. I have recently completed my PhD thesis in social psychology at the University of Edinburgh, and am originally from Romania. I am writing a daily blog on creating legacy, which you can find at