“We learn more from failure” is one of those problematic pieces of common knowledge we hear from time to time. It is problematic because it is a self fulfilling prophecy. We expect to learn more failure and, so, we do.
We don’t learn more from failure because failure has some magical teaching quality. We learn because we take the time to reflect on it, understand what happened, and learn lessons that drive change in how we approach our work/life.
If we deconstructed success and obsessed about its causes the same way we do with failure, we could learn just as much from it. But, that doesn’t happen because common knowledge tells us to celebrate success instead of learning from it.
We can change that.
One of the constants in competitive sports is hearing about wonder kids. The other constant is the fact that most of these wonder kids don’t make it. I’ve been reading excerpts from a book called “Next, Next Big Thing” that profiles 15 such football/soccer wonder kids and the stories in there are very poignant.
The wonder kids share powerful stories about their journey exposing various factors like injuries, a bad relationship with a coach, personal problems, timing, etc., that got in their way of becoming top flight footballers.
The stories reminded me of a chance conversation in London with a train ticket inspector who was an Academy player at Chelsea football club. He shared that most of the high potential kids stop playing because of injuries. The ones who emerge are either lucky to avoid them or have incredible mental strength to find a way back.
Similarly, reading each excerpt has been a profound reminder of both the importance of mental strength when the chips are down and the power of luck in shaping any success.
While we tend to have plenty of conversations about the former (“grit,” “perseverance,” etc.), we often neglect attributing our success to the latter. Perhaps we should… and perhaps we’d appreciate what’s good in our careers a lot more when we do.
Tomas Tunguz, a venture capitalist at Redpoint, has an old and interesting post about what a dog and a monkey that taught him about management.
When he was at Google, the 75 person AdSense Operations team used to gather every week for an All Hands. And, along with an update on how they were doing, the meeting always features two stuffed animals – Whoops the monkey and Duke the dog.
When Whoops the monkey was summoned, a handful of team members would retell stories about a mistake they made during the week – once or twice, these were million dollar mistakes. The group would then vote on a winner and that person would have Whoops in their cubicle that week. Then came Duke the dog. Now, team members would share stories about team members who went above and beyond their call of duty.
Whoops helped create a culture that value learning, openness and support and Duke ensured collaborative effort was recognized and celebrated.
I’ve seen variations of “Duke” in meetings over the years. But, I’ve rarely seen the equivalent of “Whoops.” I can see how it would be a powerful way to encourage a growth mindset. I’d love to give it a try.
Success isn’t an objective term. It only exists in our head. To make peace with an idea that can seem very elusive, we must define it on our terms.
Dan Kim, a programmer at 37 signals, wrote yesterday about a quote from Marissa Mayer that infuriated him – “My husband [the venture capital investor Zachary Bogue] runs a co-working office in San Francisco…And if you go in on a Saturday afternoon, I can tell you which startups will succeed, without even knowing what they do. Being there on the weekend is a huge indicator of success, mostly because these companies just don’t happen. They happen because of really hard work.”
Dan picks apart that comment – I can see where his frustration comes from. As a father who cares about spending time with his kids, he hates the “work on weekends to be successful” message.
We tend to be hugely biased by our own experiences. So, I can also see where Marissa Mayer comes from and what her biases are. I don’t agree with them but, hey, what do I know?
Dan, however, goes on to end the post by saying something that rings very true. He points out that Marissa Mayer is very successful by most objective business measures – finances, title, industry stature, etc. He then goes on to acknowledge that, while he will never be a success in Marissa’s world, he’s never been so happy to be a failure.
It is a realization we must all come to at some point in our lives. It is often the difference between a life that is happy and one that is filled with insecurity and discontent.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t pursue things that matter to us. Happiness and success lie in the pursuit. It is just a reminder to not spend time chasing someone else’s dream. Let ours be a life well lived… on our terms.
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.