Success, failure, laziness, learning

I’m sure you’ve heard about or asked that famous question – do we learn more from success or failure?

Let’s put that question on hold for a moment for a quick question – I had submitted two assignments recently. I scored well on one and didn’t score well on the other. Guess which one I wanted to review?

This isn’t uncommon – the issue with debriefing after success is that there is almost no patience to make them meaningful. A debrief after a failure feels like a necessary post-mortem. A debrief after success feels like attempts to delay the party. Success, in short, makes us lazy and complacent. It makes us want to celebrate and then come back and get the next success (sometimes without putting in the work). Reflections after success can be as rich as those from failure. Just because failure makes learning seem more important doesn’t mean that it is. Perhaps that is why discipline is often cited as a key success ingredient – it takes discipline to overcome the resistance and get on with the reflection and learning.

And, of course, we can avoid the whole discussion by learning to ignore the result and focus hard on the process. Good decisions and a good process => good results in the long run. Reflecting on the process is an easier habit to instill and your process can almost always get a bit better. That’s when it stops being about winning and losing. A process focus is all about the playing.

Welcome to the infinite game.

What if I fail?

That toxic force, the fear of failure, thrives on being avoided. It kills initiative, destroys happiness, and encourages inaction. And, yet, it prefers we don’t talk about it or think about it.

So, the next time you feel its power, ask yourself – what if I fail? Write down your thoughts as you answer the question.

What if the person turns down my hand of friendship?
What if that company says no to my cover letter?
What if that group rejects the idea?
What if I try and lose?
What if she says no?

It is not that bad. It is never that bad. Sometimes, it is even fantastic and liberating.

Sure, we need boundaries. But, I’d argue that we could do with more risk and less status-quo today. We live better lives when we drive and embrace change. And, when we live better lives, we make the world a better place.

And, even if we did fail in that attempt, it’s okay. We’ll learn. We’ll get better. We’ll try again tomorrow.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.


What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


 

Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

Notes
– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on rohan@rohanrajiv.com if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

Is failure bad?

Nikki Durkin, founder of 99dresses,  had a great post up today on the failure of her start-up. She describes the crazy journey in great detail and talks about her emotions following the failure.

“Most startups fail, and yet this industry doesn’t talk about failure nearly enough. I’d encourage anyone who has failed to write about how it felt, as I can’t tell you how much that would have helped me in those final months & weeks. I just wanted someone to relate to. Instead, I was left feeling isolated and ashamed.”

I was thinking about failure this morning as a few people had commented to one of my teammates on the Real Leaders Project that our “yeah, we quit” post felt negative. That is the exact opposite emotion I felt as I posted that. Somehow, the feeling was one of relief. We tried something, we screwed up, and we felt it was time to move on. Ours was only a weekend project in the grand scheme of things and yet, there was negativity associated with our failure to make it work.

In some ways, I can empathize with how Nikki must feel after 4 years of investment of sweat and tears. I can’t say I understand completely as I haven’t gone through the same experience myself – certainly not nearly at the intensity and magnitude of her experience. I have failed a fair bit though and can feel a part of her pain.

So, is failure good or bad? I think it is neither. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical, it just is. It is an event. It happens to most of us and to some a lot more than to others. Many pay the idea of celebrating failure lip service. They only celebrate failure if/when it leads to eventual success. That’s when you are lauded and celebrated for having persisted.

Me? I take a different view. I think an event can only be termed as a failure if you didn’t grow through the experience. Yes, Nikki’s start-up may have failed but I would term her experience a success – she’s grown through it, learnt a heck of a lot more about herself than many would over a lifetime, and has set herself up for a lot of happiness in the years to come. Joy wouldn’t feel good if it wasn’t for pain after all and it takes a few hard experience to really understand how good a life we lead. It also takes one to know one and I’m sure she’ll be a source of great encouragement and support to entrepreneurs all over the world.

Nikki, thanks for your heartfelt post. It matters. It made me think. And, as you might tell from this slightly scattered collection of thoughts, I’m still thinking. This blog has been built on the belief that you don’t fail, you only learn. And, in that spirit, you’ve made a big difference sharing your story for us all to learn from. And that’s success in my book.