Posts Tagged ‘success


A Successful Failure

Group FailureFailure isn’t something we like to talk about. In business, for every Google, there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of companies that fail to achieve success every year. Failure makes people uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that we have a hard time talking about it and acknowledging its role in life. At the Mills College 1983 Commencement, author Ursula K. Le Guin highlighted the oft-ignored topic of failure:

Success is somebody else’s failure…No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.

Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself—as I know you already have—in dark places, alone, and afraid.

Le Guin makes two points about failure that I believe are contributors to our discomfort: (1) success can imply someone else’s failure; and (2) failure reveals weaknesses.

1. Success can imply someone else’s failure.

Marketing peeps like to talk about “win-win” solutions. My question to you, does this ever happen? In order for both sides to win, doesn’t this result imply a certain level of compromise on both sides? We look for the win-win because we’re uncomfortable with the negative implications of someone failing (unless they’re you’re mortal enemy, and you take unholy delight in their downfall).

During recent years, we’ve seen this attitude have an effect in the classrooms. Teachers hesitate to criticize students or grade hard, for fear of bringing down parental ire. Some schools are electing to stop publishing the honor roll in the local newspaper.

Principal Paul Richards said a key reason for stopping the practice is its contribution to students’ stress level in “This high expectations-high-achievement culture.”

Perhaps I’m not sympathetic enough to the plight of those who didn’t make the honor roll. However, isn’t the whole point of things like grades and the honor roll to give individuals knowledge of where they need improvement? From the same story about the honor roll, I found this head-scratching comment:

Richards said one parent with three children attending Needham High told him publishing the honor roll is a constant cause of stress in her family. According to that parent, one of the three students routinely made the honor roll while the other two did not.

Constant stress? It’s the honor roll, not life and death. Doesn’t this comment imply that maybe something is going on in this home to make the third student feel constant stress for not making the honor roll? The success of the other two students shouldn’t be overlooked to protect the feelings of the third.

2. Failure Reveals Weakness

What parent likes to admit she has a child weaker than another? Today’s parenting, now a competitive event for many, doesn’t leave room for addressing failure because of it’s implication that there’s a weakness. By default, we seem inclined to ignore weakness, believing that if one just tries hard enough, weakness can be overcome.

Since the introduction of self-esteem courses in schools during the 1970s, and parents continually telling their children, “You can do anything,” we’ve had a hard time facing reality.

Few people can do everything, let alone do it with the highest skill—and that’s not a bad thing.

If you were automatically good and everything, how much appreciation would you have for your accomplishments? Wouldn’t life be kind of boring? Weakness, and even failure, are some of the most powerful catalysts available to an individual. They’re the things that keep pushing us forward.

If you go into a grade school classroom today, I bet many of students honestly believe they all have an equal shot to be professional athletes, multi-millionaires, and/or CEOs. Unfortunately, few parents, or other adult role models, feel comfortable pointing out the uncomfortable facts: society still needs its trash collectors, social workers, and accountants, but these are rarely aspirations expressed by children.

Odds of Winning the NBA Draft

Consider the following equation for determining the chance of an NCAA basketball player being drafted by the NBA (note that this equation only counts the number of Division 1 players and doesn’t take into account the odds of making a Division 1 team):

  • 30 NBA teams * 2 draft rounds = 60 draft positions
  • 336 Division 1 Schools * 15 players/team = 5,040 potential draftees
  • 60 draft positions / 5,040 potential draftees = 1.1% chance of being drafted

So, for every 100 kids that want to play in the NBA, just one has a shot, and the other 99 will have to figure out a different career.

Failure Doesn’t Have to be Negative

Let’s go back to Le Guin’s, “Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure.” I believe she’s right; however, we’ve forgotten we can reframe failure, turning it from a negative into a positive. Consider Thomas Edison’s take on his supposed failures: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (link)

We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the reality of failure and its potential. Failure is a marking point that we use to refine our efforts, to push ourselves into new directions. Yes, failure can be painful, depressing, and frustrating. But since failure isn’t going away, if we fail to learn how to deal with it, we’ll lose more than our dreams—we’ll lose our ability to progress on any level. Even if you’re like Edison, and all you’ve found at this point is 10,000 ways something won’t work, you’ve still learned something. Don’t overlook failure’s power to give you direction and weakness’s strength to give you insight.


(Image courtesy of Cold Cut. Some rights reserved.)


Rock-’em-sock-’em Competition

I’m relatively new to the tech world, so I wasn’t aware of the competition between Engadget and Gizmodo or the history between their founders. Fortune put together a helpful round-up of the characters. While I found the story interesting, I thought one of the most important ideas was in the last paragraph:

When pressed, the two rock-’em-sock-’em journos will admit that competition has made both sites better.

Funny how something that’s so good for business seems to be something many companies would prefer to skip altogether. John D. Rockefeller said that, “Competition is a sin,” (link)—a funny sentiment for the first U.S. billionaire.

A recent post on I, Cringely (courtesy of Robert Scoble’s link blog) highlighted how Google, an upstart in the not-to-distance past, appears to be adopting the tactics of the company it wanted to outperform:

…Google took a long look at investing in or acquiring free411 under a nondisclosure agreement between the two companies, only to abruptly break off discussions and start its own competing service. Is this beginning to sound familiar? This strategy of getting start-ups to explain their business models and share their technologies was practically invented by Microsoft, which would then break off talks, start a competing product or service and use pressure on industry partners to put the smaller company out of business.

Hmm, I guess Google’s short-term memory is, well, short. Would Google have accomplished its insane success if not pushed to to compete against Microsoft, Yahoo, and every other company in the world? How well does this practice match up with Google’s informal motto of “Don’t be evil?”

Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I love it when there’s someone who’s better than me because it pushes me to do better, to be better. I believe you’re more likely to get stuck in neutral if there isn’t someone taunting you at least a little. Perhaps competition brings out the worst in us, I also think it can bring out the best in us, too.



Masterly Skills

Varying stories about masters of their craft have floated around for years. My friend Penny recently highlighted the masterly skills of a cobbler who saved her favorite shoes:

This cobbler is a master of his craft. I’ve now had him rebuild the soles of two pairs of my shoes, neither pair were “easy” cases. Today I picked up my beloved work shoes. He stitched them back together. They have nice new heels and rubber soles. They look amazing don’t you agree? It took all of my energy not to hug him and I really do not this he charges enough for his amazing work. He laughed at me because I gushed at length about the work and praised him. I think I embarrassed him. Good. He knows what he’s doing and he does it well and with pride.

We have so many channels available to us for sharing our skills and talents, but the ease has made some people careless. What saddens me is how few individuals seem to take pleasure and pride in being masters of what they do. I’ve worked with so many people who subscribe to doing the bare minimum to get by, then justify their actions by saying, “No one notices anyway. What difference does it make?” Other thinking includes, “Everyone else gets away with it, why should I put myself out?”

I’ve decided that these trends are somewhat reversed in this new world I’ve chosen to join. I find myself surrounded by talented, driven people, many who would do what they do out of sheer love, even if it didn’t come with a paycheck. About two years into college, I finally figured this very thing out, courtesy of my dad.

After changing majors seven (yes, seven) times, my dad sat me down and started asking some pointed questions.

Dad: “Why have you gone through every engineering program the school offers?”

Me: “Well, there’s a demand for women in engineering, and I’d make good money?”

Dad: “Do you like engineering?”

Me: “Not really, but I want to make a lot of money?” (Yes, at 19/20, I was seriously interested in making money.)

Dad: “But what is it you really love to do?”

Me: [stumped]

Dad: “Did you really like writing in high school? You seemed to enjoy writing for the newspaper?”

Me: [light bulb starting to flicker]

Dad: “I can’t tell you what to be, but I can tell you that if you’re doing something you love, success and financial security usually follow. When you’re doing something you’re good at and enjoy, people can see that and respond to it.”

Me: [My dad’s brilliant.]

I took his advice and have tried to become a master of my craft. If I’m lucky, this will be a lifelong pursuit, and I share Penny’s sentiments:

On my walk home in the rain with my renewed shoes, I began to think about the details in my work. I strive for perfection the first time. I’ve prided myself in the quality of my work. As I’ve gotten older and/or “more comfortable” with what I’m doing I’ve gotten both sloppy and slightly lazy, allowing mistakes to creep through. In honour of my cobbler’s work, I’m renewing my desire to improve on the little details, with fibre, foods, photos, and words. I have a very long way to go before I feel I can call anything I do “master” quality. I hope one day to be worthy.

Do you feel like your a master of what you do?


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July 2019
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