I thought about this morning’s post a few times. I had a learning in queue that I had been thinking about from our Microeconomics class this week. But, I decided to shelve that this week and write about something that is top of mind – failure. That also leads me to the other related thought – when I’d first thought of the “MBA Learnings” series, it wasn’t just to share learnings from class. It was also to really touch upon life in business school and share my thought process as I approached it.
One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is – am I failing enough? I ask myself this question for a few reasons. First, it is because I think there is a strong connection between failure and learning. I have come to realize that the biggest by-product of success is self confidence. Yes, if you are smart, you will sit down and discuss what went well. And, yes, you will learn a lot from it. But, when you fail, you don’t have anything else to hold onto except learning. That’s powerful. Second, it is because failure helps guard against complacency. There is no mechanism that makes you eat humble pie as much as failure. I think that’s incredibly important because humility is what keeps us in touch with reality. And, it is people who really understand reality that are able to drive change and do something with it.
I received a few texts from a friend last night that I saw as I woke up. He shared that a project he’d been working on had failed. He said – “I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.” I could feel his disappointment. But, I also thought that was a great way to think about it. Even if we’re working in a team that has a share in our failures, the best way to think about failure, in my opinion, is to start with the “I.” Sure, you can blame everyone and everything around you. Sure, the circumstances must have been extenuating. But, you played a part. And you have to own it.
I say this because I’ve spent the last two days reflecting on a project I consider very important. And, after a few weeks of intense effort, I feel I’ve made a large enough collection of mistakes to slow down and reflect. We’re in a creative stage of the process and I’ve enjoyed this stage and have experimented heavily. The nature of experimentation is that a few work and most do not. And, every once in a while, the collection of experiments that don’t work threaten to overshadow the ones that do. And, I think I am at one such point – a real learning moment. I woke up at 4 this morning and spent the last hour and a half putting these thoughts together. This isn’t the first such learning moment of course.
It made me remember a moment 5 years ago now when we were in the early stages of putting together a team for what felt like an audacious project as a university student – to put together a new university version of Britain’s Got Talent (inspired by the Susan Boyle moment) and to do so despite not having an assurance that we’d have enough funding to pull it off. We had only secured 30% of the funds required, had no venue, and had just begun putting together a small team. 2 weeks into working with the team, I received an email from one of the team members asking to withdraw. I went back to that this morning and thought I’d share a small part that I still remember –
Also the entire experience of working (together ?) in this student based team has not been completely great either. Yes, you might claim to model this on the real life workplace environment, but once again I fail to see true justifications for certain aspects. While I do understand from our brief interactions, that leadership skills are what are being aimed for by each of you, I have to admit, that I was not really motivated to look up to you as a person who could lead us to work for <> (maybe because I failed to see the part of ‘lead by example’ coming in anywhere).
Following this note, 2 others withdrew. Oh, it hurt. There’s something to be said for moments when people around you look at you and say (either verbally or not) that you’re not deserving of their trust.
That definitely was a learning moment.
But, I also know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that, the eventual success wouldn’t have occurred without such moments. They’re painful in the short term but meaningful in the long term. And, five years later, I can say with a lot of certainty that I look back at these moments with a smile.
I find myself facing new kinds of challenges today. It has been a challenge finding the time to reflect amidst two packed days. This stuff doesn’t happen when you are sitting idle and looking for things to think about. I guess that’s what is great about waking up early and getting some time to yourself. After two days of thinking about it, I think I’ve finally understood where the problems lie. And, I realize I’m going to approach it as I normally do – own up to my mistakes, be open about my intentions and have a conversation.
That goes back to my original question – Am I failing enough? Before I answer that, I’d just like to say that this is what I’ve loved about the MBA experience. You have a huge number of opportunities to experiment, learn and fail. There’s only so much you can fail at work – there are way too many things at stake (most of all, your own job). But, I’m now in a place where I’m paying a couple of hundred thousand dollars to learn and I intend to make the most of that. The new Kellogg rebranding led to the “inspiring growth” tag-line. That’s easier said than done, of course. Growth can be painful because it requires you to experiment, fail and learn. But, is it worth it? Absolutely.
And, as of this morning, I definitely think I am failing. And, I am fortunate to be in an environment that allows me to fail spectacularly. It is occasionally painful but I’m glad for the opportunity.