On Failing Forward and Winning by Losing
“It hit me like a ton of massive scaffolding – my whole career had evaporated…the reality was that I had to figure something new out. But what? I was absolutely miserable and scared.” Stephan Paternot , Co-Founder theglobe.com
Executives around the world have been caught in a storm of market collapse, corporate failures, and mass layoffs. For a great many, the forecast remains unsettled if not downright bleak. Yet if history is any guide, the majority will weather the recessionary storm. Some will actually sow the seeds of success through the adversity while a few will, unfortunately never recover.
What determines an individual’s response to adversity? Why do some snap while others snap back? The answer has to do with an obscure, poorly understood human attribute, one that most people will not know they have until tested for it. It is resilience and those who have it will tell you that failure is not falling down, tripping or even being pushed to the ground .….it is staying down.
The Stigma of Failing
Failure is one of society’s most enduring and powerful taboos. It is defined as the absence or lack of success and used interchangeably with such pejorative words as flop, disaster, bomb, botch, breakdown, bungle, bust, defeat and deficiency. Few modern day putdowns are more hurtful than being taunted ‘Loser’ and the derisive forefinger/thumb shaped in the letter ‘L’ and placed over one’s forehead has become as universal a symbol as the peace sign of a generation earlier. Failure is charged with so much negativity that it is illustrated in Wikipedia by a photograph of a train wreck.
Our problem with failure is partially cognitive. Failure is an outcome that was unplanned, the unintended consequence of actions that somehow did not live up to expectations. And given that we all want to be in control of our lives, the resulting dissonance disorients and unsettles us. Not wanting to be judged lacking we reflexively look for others to blame while fearing that others will blame or reject us.
The stigma of failure leads us to over-protect our children from its perceived ravages. We graduate every student, discourage negative feedback, and even invent multiple intelligences to ensure that every child is smart in their own, unique way. We prop up their self-esteem by insisting that notwithstanding the score on the soccer pitch, there are no losers, only winners. And every child receives a trophy, if only for showing up.
Our aversion to failure is why risk-taking is imbued with both anxiety and admiration. We resist climbing out onto the limb of opportunity for fear it might break and we will fall. At the same time, we know that we cannot grasp the brass ring of success without reaching for it and thus our fear of failing is countered by the certainty that avoiding risk also begets failure. Those frozen by the dilemma begrudgingly admire those who are not.
The courage to risk failing is culturally influenced. Americans are noted risk-takers who view failure as a heroic form of personal research and development. Failure is viewed not as a stain but a badge of honor, a ‘can do’ experiential notch in the belt. Such an attitude contrasts starkly with countries such as Japan where the relationship between failure, shame and honor is complex and reduces risk-taking propensities. Similarly, less than 3% of Finns report any interest in the risks of entrepreneurial activity. Even Canadians are said to be far less forgiving of those who take risks and stumble than their American counterparts.
"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm"…Winston Churchill
Though failure is a taboo many great failures have profoundly changed the world. Christopher Columbus missed his target by thousands of miles. Alexander Fleming failed in his quest to rid the world of influenza but accidentally discovered penicillin in the process. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen never did meet his objectives of improving the performance of cathode rays yet somehow discovered the X-Ray while failing to do so. And even Mozart died impoverished and was buried in the pauper's section of the cemetery.
Countless great leaders point to pivotal career failures as key to their subsequent success. In business, Bernie Marcus would not have founded Home Depot had he not been fired by Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers. David Neeleman would not have founded JetBlue had Herb Kelleher not fired him from Southwest Airlines. Michael Bloomberg would not have founded Bloomberg’s had he not been released by Solomon Brothers after 15 years of service. Eric Schmidt would not have landed at Google had he not been fired as CEO of Novell. And on and on.
Some people are immortalized not for overcoming adversity and becoming ‘winners’ but rather for their perseverance as serial losers. Britain’s first Olympic ski jumper Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards won the hearts of millions with his rather modest, yet determined performances at the 1988 Olympics. The names Tucker, DeLorean and Bricklin have become legendary automotive figures not so much for failing but for their pluck and flair in trying. And last year, Robert Dee’s single match victory broke a streak of 54 consecutive losses while retaining the dubious title of ‘world’s worst tennis professional’.
The Benefits of Failing
Smooth seas do not make a skillful sailor…..Proverb
However we define it, we all want to be ‘winners’. Companies look to hire them, venture capitalists look to invest in them and parents want their children to marry them.
But success is not the mere absence of failure. Instead it is more often than not the tempered product of learning from it. It is the conscious decision to doggedly persevere, adapt, and grow. Success is a learned outcome and like anything that we learn, it is acquired by a variety of means. We watch, we listen, we read, and we do. Learning by ‘doing’ is an iterative process involving feedback loops. Actions beget responses which are processed and reflected upon. This leads to adjusted action which starts the loop again. Scientists call this ‘trial and error’ with the errors representing the dues paid for the discoveries they make. Thomas Edison liked to say that he discovered 10,000 ways that the light bulb wouldn’t work before finding the way that it would.
Similarly, businesses start with hunches or hypotheses, make investments, take risks, and then adjust their plans based on market feedback. Some initiatives work, while some (think ‘New’ Coke, the Pontiac Aztec) do not. Unless the mistakes are fatal, companies process the feedback, adapt and try again. Failure is thus an integral part of the learning cycle. Unfortunately shareholders prefer flawless strategy and execution and tend to punish failure. But prefer as they may, the reality is that progress often emerges when outcomes violate our predictions, and we are forced to step back, ruminate and adjust. Innovation and creativity are held ransom when the performance culture wins.
Individuals also undergo their greatest growth when forced to step back and take stock. Such times are often stressful and coincide with trigger events such as job loss, financial stress, marriage, divorce, childbirth, illness and death. These are the moments which corner individuals into reflecting, into making sense of what is happening, into changing, and invariably into maturing. In his biography, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba observes, “success lies not in how much you have accomplished, but in the fact that you have done something, experienced the good and bad, and begun to learn something”.
In the world of hiring, the most impressive candidates are always those who have been field-tested by adversity. These individuals are truly ‘experienced’, a word which Oscar Wilde suggested is "the name everyone gives to their mistakes". Equally important, these individuals can speak openly about the adversity they have encountered and how the lessons learned shape them going forward. Compare this to the so-called superstars who describe their careers as a series of uninterrupted successes. They wear the hubris of entitlement and invincibility along with what may be unrealistic expectations about themselves, their abilities and their impact on the world. Such expectations are blind spots not to mention risk factors for companies that consider hiring them.
Failure can also unlock the inertia that restrains individuals from pursuing their true passions. Frustrated by the sum of their career decisions many find the journey to fulfillment impeded by family obligations, mortgages and fear. Setbacks can actually remove many of the obstacles. Author JK Rowling summarized her life immediately before Harry Potter as "divorced, poor, with no prospects and disapproving parents". Yet these circumstances actually proved beneficial to Ms. Rowling as she had “nothing left to lose in pursuing my dream of writing”. Looking back she reflected, “failure taught me things about myself I could have learned in no other way”. By stripping away what she called the "inessential things" cluttering her life, Rowling was able focus on what proved to be the essential, to the enjoyment of millions of readers around the world.
The Nature of Resilience
“It’s not what happens to you, it is how you deal with it and what you make of it.” David Neeleman
We all face adversity at some point in our lives and when we do, it is rarely convenient or in our control. And it typically comes at a cost of career momentum, prestige, status, relationships or financial wherewithal.
Adversity’s corrosive sidekick is stress, the perception of helplessness or lack of control over a situation or event. Stress is an interpreted response and differs between people depending on their perceived ability to deal with the stressor. And since feelings of competence and strength vary over time and the issue at hand, stress is very situational. While the effects of stress can be reduced through techniques such as rest, exercise and diet, the only way to deal with the stress itself is to wrestle control of the situation. And this is where resilience comes to the rescue.
Diane Coutu describes resilience as the ‘ability to face down reality’, to soberly assess, understand and accept the reality of the setback while avoiding the destructive behaviors that prevent positive reaction. This is the pivotal decision to ‘get up’ off the mat. Resilience is the ability to look at a difficult situation in the context of a bigger picture and determine which battles are worth fighting and how they will be fought.
Low resilience can lead individuals to wallow in the endless cycles of asking ‘why me’? It can lead to unproductive self-pity, anger and second-guessing. And it can imprison a person in the view that the setback is a reflection of their overall abilities, competence or character.
Becoming More Resilient
Resilience can be strengthened in three broad areas:
1. Emotional Control/Coping Skills
In sports, only one team can win, players have good days and bad, and not everyone plays fair. Sooner or later, athletes will run into adversity and they must learn to regulate the accompanying emotions or risk the wear and tear of fluctuating highs and lows. Over time, athletes learn to wear victory and shoulder defeat and to put both behind them so as to prepare for tomorrow.
The workplace also has its emotional ups and downs which can exact a toll. Job loss can be particularly traumatizing, triggering emotions from denial, anger to depression. Some individuals experience the guilt of attributing their situation to something they did. Though unpleasant, such feelings can actually be a beneficial first step in learning from the situation. On the other hand, feelings of shame are more dangerous as they attribute the failure to something you are, an indictment of you personally. This can cast a depressive pall which is harder to face and fix. In the end, regulating your emotions, stepping back, making meaning, learning, and putting things behind you are keys to moving forward.
Affiliation is also important. Adversity is best faced with others in mutual support. It is a time to network and to benefit by the experience of others facing similar challenges. It is also a time to reach out to friends and trusted advisors for feedback and advice on moving forward.
Finally, research has found that the most resilient people have the ability to improvise solutions to situations. There is no play book for trying times, only broad guidelines. More important is the ability to make the most of the hand you are dealt, to make do with the resources and information at hand and find ways to survive, if not thrive. Resilient people look past, around and under the obstacles to find the options and opportunities.
2. Framing and Context
Many executives get so wrapped up in their careers or professions that ‘what they do’ becomes ‘who they are’. For these individuals little is more frightening than the prospect of going from ‘who’s who’ to ‘who’s that’.
Framing situates individual setbacks in the context of a more meaningful life. Psychologist Robert Emmons says that there are four basic dimensions to our lives: achievement, community, spirituality and legacy. Faltering in one is far less devastating when framed in the context of all four. Framing provides a higher-level unifying dimension to an individual’s life, dampening the trauma of damage in any one dimension. For example, when asked how she deals with financial crises, investment manager Veronika Hirsch says, “I go home and say, ‘Okay, nobody died today whom I know and love, so that’s been a good thing’”.
Framing also positions adversity in the context of previous setbacks that have been overcome. Precedents demonstrate to the individual that light does follow darkness and that tomorrow holds the promise of being better than today. Businessman and philanthropist Joseph Rotman said, “I learned from my father and his experiences not to always see things as earth shattering. Relax, adversity is an opportunity, and every time things go wrong, you should see it as a chance to do something different or creative. A better tomorrow is out there”.
3. Control and Mastery
Resilience is linked to the control we believe we have over our lives. Self-efficacy is the unshakable belief that we have what it takes to succeed, a judgment if you will of specific capabilities. It is different from the notion of self-esteem which is a general feeling of self-worth. A person with high self-efficacy believes that they will figure out how to overcome adversity while a person with low self-efficacy will be more inclined to view setbacks as hopeless. Control of one’s destiny also affects the likelihood of turning to lottery tickets and gambling as last resorts in accumulating wealth.
In a related way, people who believe that intelligence is set or fixed take setbacks harder than those who believe that it is malleable. Individuals who view intelligence as malleable consider missteps as learning opportunities while those who view it as fixed view them as indictments. It is said that there are two types of geniuses. There are those who experience ‘eureka’ moments when they suddenly see or comprehend something for which they are remembered for life. Some have many of these moments while others are never heard from again, veritable one hit inspirational wonders of science, music, art or commerce. And then there are those who gain mastery over a lifetime and seemingly develop genius. For years Clint Eastwood was best known for low budget westerns and almost dialogue-free police movies. But over time he has become a universally respected writer, director and producer of award winning films. In his last film, the septuagenarian Mr. Eastwood even wrote and performed the title track leaving many in awe of his seemingly endless capacity to develop. People who believe that the brain is elastic, that it can grow over time view failure not as something to be feared but rather to be embraced as a developmental opportunity. Failure is not the end of the school term, it is the beginning.
The sense of control also enables recovery from adversity. Days after Carol Bartz (now CEO of Yahoo) assumed the leadership mantle at Autodesk she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than take a leave of absence or resign, she remained at the helm of the company and over the next 14 years transformed its very nature. She recently explained her decision to persevere through cancer by stating that she knew she would overcome her illness and wanted to focus on her destiny at Autodesk. Similarly, when Mickey Drexler was fired from The Gap , the company he built, he refused severance and the non-compete that was attached to it. Instead he committed to proving himself yet again by immediately taking over retailer J. Crew. As he states, “sure I was angry, and am still angry; but that just added fuel to my determination to show them what I was capable of”. In both cases, these executives believed they controlled their fates, looked past their adversities and simply kept moving forward.
Finally, psychologist Karen Reivich argues that resilient individuals infuse their situations with hope. Optimism helps. As businessman Seymour Schulich says, “Behind very success story is usually someone who beat the obstacles because he or she refused to accept the pessimists view. And there is never a shortage of pessimists willing to share their view.”
"I’ve had some tough experiences as a child and have had my share of business and personal setbacks, but sitting around thinking about them isn’t going to change anything. Someone once said that I was a good winner but a better loser. When I have a setback, I put it behind me as fast as I can and keep moving..."Ted Turner
It is poorly understood and most people do not realize they have it until after the fact. It is also unclear why some people appear to have it and others don’t. But what is known is that resilience is a useful quality in times of adversity. It is a fortifier that strengthens and protects. It is also a set of lenses that adds a rose colored hue to the possibilities embedded in defeat. Best of all, we can all learn to be more resilient.
Though he is legendary for hitting 714 career home runs Babe Ruth also struck out over 1300 times during that period. Oddly perhaps, he did not view the two numbers as polar opposites, one as good and one to be avoided, but rather as integrally related. Striking out was not a failure, not an indictment of him or his hitting ability, but rather a learning opportunity, which if reflected upon, brought him ever so closer to his next home run. Winning and losing were part of the same glorious narrative and no one would ever remember the strikeouts when all was said and done. And no one did !
About The Author
Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto based StoneWood Group Inc, a leading human resources consulting firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.
Dr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the University of Toronto.
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