This “failure” thing. Why does it have such a bad reputation? I think most of us are pathologically opposed to failure. Who wants to do something wrong? Who wants to possibly be held up to ridicule? Look at the definition of failure: “an act or instance of proving unsuccessful; lack of success”. Here are some of its synonyms: defeat, deterioration, loss, misstep, collapse. To fail at something is to be wrong – it generally means you thought something could happen and you were wrong.
Yet there is a whole other side to this word. It is something to build from. Here is a quote from one of the Mythbusters that presents another side of the story:
“We love it when we are wrong. It’s like the best possible thing that can happen to us – is to be wrong. The simple reason is that that’s an opportunity for us to learn something. When there is a failure or if we have taken a particular course that has led us down a path that’s been unproductive, we have to stop and ask “well, why?”. What was it that I was doing wrong? That’s when the light bulb goes off and that’s when you are on your road to do some new adventure or discovery.”
I’ve read quotes from many venture capitalists saying that they will not invest in an entrepreneur unless the entrepreneur have failed in the past. Richard Bransan, founder of the Virgin brand said this, “Don’t be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.”
We have been so conditioned by our society, by our media and by our upbringing to shy away from failure. We rarely read about the person who tried, failed and never became famous. Now obviously investing all of your money unwisely, or trying unhealthy personal habits, are probably failures you should avoid. But aren’t there a lot of instances where we could take a chance, be willing to be wrong, to risk not getting it right, in order to learn? I think being willing to fail – in order to learn something – ties into the whole idea of continuing with something or moving on from it that I wrote about last. If you are willing to be wrong and to learn from that, you are definitely in a position to make a better decision. And, oh by the way, the thing you try doesn’t have to be a big extravagant event. Why not join the MythBusters and try a little?
I wrote about this subject last week. I left it with the question: So how are you supposed to figure out when to “keep going” and when to “be a great something else”? I am not the person to give “the answer”. But I have a few thoughts.
I think you need to start by acknowledging four aspects of human nature
First, it is uncomfortable to try to look at things in different ways. It is really hard to say, “Maybe I have been wasting my time trying to be this. I need to think about trying something else.” It is hard to give up something you are passionate about, simply because you have not yet met success. But you have to be willing to at least look at it and say “I was wrong.”
Second, the words “success” and “failure” are often hard to define in the context of our existence. If I love what I am doing but can’t make enough money am I a success? Or am I a failure? If others see me thriving, but I am not happy do it anymore, what is that? Am I really successful if the thing I am doing is no fun to do? Often our unique experiences and perspectives help frame the two sides of success and failure completely differently than another person might see those concepts.
Third, it is easy to make excuses. “I’ll wait another year.” “I am too busy to think about change right now.” “What will others think if I do that?” We often don’t take the time to really look at the evidence behind our own opinions. Sometimes we convince ourselves that the cost of the current state is low enough that it is not worth the effort to reconsider. But are we making an excuse, or making a rational argument? You have to be willing to decide if you are being really honest with yourself.
Fourth, we cannot go alone on this journey. For some things we need a second (and perhaps third, fourth or tenth) person to help us look at the situation. Maybe we need a sympathetic ear. Maybe it is the voice of reason that will help us. Perhaps we simply need someone to turn us around so we face another direction and see the possibilities.
After you acknowledge the principles above, you have to be willing to set aside the appropriate amount of time to consider the situation. What is the “appropriate amount of time”? If you are thinking about something as important as a career or a relationship or a life-altering event, it needs deep, considerate time. You probably need to go to the four principles above and really explore them. You have to be honest with yourself (that’s where the fourth principle comes in to play). If it is something tangential to your life, the time need not be too much. For example, I write this blog. I spend a few hours a week on it. I do it because I love to write. Only a few people read it weekly. I wish there were more. But the few hours a week I spend on it is fun for me and I get the satisfaction of writing. I will “keep going” as long as I have ideas to write about. That’s not something I need to think about for a long time.
I have been doing some reading and thinking about knowing when to keep going at some task/goal versus when to stop, change directions. There is a lot to be said for each side of the argument.
All of us have seen the quotes, the charts, the success stories that are meant to inspire us to not give up. “Michael Jordan was cut from his ninth grade basketball team”. “Thomas Edison tried and failed 1000 times with his light bulb before getting it right”. Or we see inspirational charts like this one:
They implore us to “keep going, you are almost there”. Failure is something that leads to success. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. It takes a lot of effort and determination to be good at most things. We hear of many examples of people persevering in the face of large odds. It is part of the American folklore. We have the successful person who started from humble background to be president of a company or a famous singer. There is no doubt that too many people give up to soon. We see them every day in our colleagues at work or our neighbors. We can see that with perhaps a little more effort, the other person could make a big breakthrough. How can they not keep trying?
But on the other hand, how do we ever know when to stop? When is it time to stop chasing an unattainable dream and try something different?
This Stephen Covey quote is one of my favorites. “Most people spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to realize, when they get to the top, the ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall”.
Or this short anecdote from a really fascinating book I have been reading, It’s Not About the Shark by Dr. David Niven. The background is that Michael was a teacher who was not very good despite his passion for teaching math and his earnestness to teach the students. He tried numerous ways to improve, changing his teaching style numerous times based on what he learned. He sought advice from experts. He went to classes. He studied on line and even observed other teachers. But he never got better (as measured by student test score results and student satisfaction surveys). Then, all of a sudden this happened: “Michael had run out of new things to try when a chance conversation with a former student turned him around. She said to me. ‘Why are you still a bad teacher when you could be a great something else?'”
TI am sure the world is full of examples of people who let go of one obsession or career for another and met great success. So how are you supposed to figure out when to “keep going” and when to “be a great something else”?
That is the great question I am trying to figure out. I’ll have more to say in another blog post about that.