Tag Archives: Failure

“That’s what I was doing!”

We were at a pool over the weekend and a child was getting a private swimming lesson from one of the lifeguards.  The kid was working to pass the deep end test but couldn’t quite get his backstroke right.  The lifeguard told the boy, “Point your toes, when you kick.”  The boy yelled, “That’s what I was doing!”  That is the point when the boy stopped learning and improving.  He was insistent that he was doing everything right, despite not getting the results he wanted.

How many times do we do that as adults?  Whether it is from a boss, spouse, friend or co-worker, how many times has someone given us a positive critic but we took it as criticism.  Sometimes it hurts to say that we aren’t doing something right.  Sometimes it is hard to admit that we need to do better.  Growth is hard but we can do it.  Sometimes all we have to do is listen.

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes” – Oscar Wilde

Imagine if every time you made a mistake in your life, you had paused, reflected on the situations, learned from the experience and grew personally and professionally.

Don’t you agree it would have been the wisest thing for you past self to do?  No blaming.  No internalizing limiting thoughts.  Simply learning and growing.

If your past self would have been wiser to turn all of your mistakes into experience, wouldn’t it be wiser for you to start doing it now?  We all make mistakes.  Only a few of us turn those mistakes into growth.  Be one of the few.  It is a decision you can make today.

For want of a nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

This proverb has been around for, at least, 700 years.  It does an amazing job of projecting a visual of its message: seemingly minor details can have unforeseen and potentially grave consequences.  In this version of the proverb lacking one spare nail to hold on a horse shoe snowballed into an entire kingdom being destroyed.  While that may be a little far reaching, there can be no doubt that a small action or inaction can trigger a series of consequences that may have a powerful affect on the outcome.

All this talk of horses and knights may be a little dates.  A more modern version could be:

For want of calling a customer the sale was lost,
for want of a sale the client was lost,
for want of a client the month was lost,
for want of a month the quarter was lost,
for want of a quarter the business was lost.
So a business was lost—all for want of calling a customer .

Picking up the phone and making customer calls is frequently listed as one of the most difficult things for a salesperson or entrepreneur to do.  Unfortunately, every time a phone call isn’t made, it is like taking a nail away from the knight.  Perhaps this particular nail isn’t significant to the business but you will never know that.  By the way, emailing or messaging isn’t the same.

False pride a.k.a. the damage participation awards cause

I volunteered for a local middle school’s after school program, First Lego League competition.  This is a great program were middle schoolers from across the world compete in a series of events including a research program and a robotics program.  In the research program, the kids research a problem and propose novel solutions.  In the robotics program, the kids build and program a robot to solve a series of challenges prescribed by First Lego League.  We lost.  My kids did well but not great.  Other teams simply out performed us.

After we found out that we didn’t win, I asked the kids, “so . . . . . what did we learn?”  Yes, that is a question I ask anytime someone doesn’t achieve their goals.  It is also a question I ask when someone does achieve their goals.  Basically it is a great question.  I ask it of myself more than I ask anyone else.  In fact, once this is posted, I’ll start asking myself what did I learn.  Could my title have attracted more readers?  Could my writing have inspired more shares, likes or comments?  Could I have promoted this piece better or harder or more effectively?

These questions should be answered honestly and without blame.  Simple matter of fact answers that allow us to learn and grow.  Simple matter of fact answers that allow to do better next time.  This is where I got into trouble with the kids.  The kids answered, “To always try your best.”  While on the surface that is a good answer, kids have learned that if they say “try your best” adults will typically move along.  Unfortunately for them, I’m not your typical adult.  “So,” I asked, “did you try your best?”  “Yes!”

“Actually, you didn’t.”  The looks on their faces were priceless.  It is not a comment they hear in our participation trophy culture.  I listed a few simple matter of fact points to highlight my claim.  “You met once a week for about 90 minutes.  We know that the other middle school’s team met four times a week for three hours.  You were tasked with writing your script for your presentation as homework.  You didn’t do it.  Instead, you showed up and practiced it for the first time on the morning of the competition.  I’m not assigning blame.  I’m showing that the effort that WE (and I really stressed “we”) put in didn’t add up to a win.”  Perhaps I went on a bit more.  Yeah, ok I went on a lot more and that is something I’m asking myself what I learned.  That is a separate post.

That was when they pushed back.  “Don’t you want us to feel proud?”  I’m not sure how to even describe their tone.  It was whiny and combative at the same time.  I guess that is how to describe it.  My answer?  “No.  If you had put in the effort and lost, I would say feel proud.  If you want to feel proud for putting in 1/8th the work of the other school and doing ok but not winning, go ahead.  It matters what your goal is.  Did you do this to just have a little fun with a little effort?  If so, we had fun but fun is not pride.  If you wanted to win, the fact is the effort you put in was insufficient.  You had the ability to win (they really are a bright group of kids) but you chose to not put the required effort to win.”

They didn’t like it.  I’m not sure that understood it but it needed to be said.  I know they hated it but I hope it will help them make better decisions about putting in effort in the future.  Too many times we strive for mediocre.  Aiming for mediocre is a sure way to never be great.

I want to say that again:  Aiming for mediocre is a sure way to never be great.

Please share with us.  Where have you aimed for mediocre?  Why?  What will make you strive for greatness next time?  (And of course)  What did you learn?

Evil goals

Let me state first, I am a big believer in goals.  Big goals.  Small goals.  Health goals.  Careers goals.  A goal focuses your attention and efforts, enabling efficient and effective pattern of accomplishments.  If that isn’t clear enough, let me say, “Goals are good.”

I am a voracious reader of all things related to success.  This includes goals, motivation, determination and processes.  There have been a growing number of articles pushing back at the usefulness and healthiness of having goals.  Now, I don’t claimed that all you need are goals.  A broken organization or an underperforming person needs more than a good stretch goal.  And no, daydreaming about wandering through a field of clovers 20 minutes a day will not magically lead to wealth.  (Not only did I actually read that theory, someone actually wrote it.)

There are some legitimate issues with unquestioning dedication to goal setting.   For example, Audrey Daniels claims that people who repeated fail to reach their stretch goals have a decline in productivity.  (Oops!  13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money).  Another study suggests that stretch goals have “bad side effects,” such as unethical behavior, narrowing focus, poor risk analysis and a toxic organizational culture.  Others have suggested that goal setting actually forces people to focus on short term objectives over long term goals…….Ummm, goals are by nature a longer term nature.  If your goals are forcing a short term focus problem, you are doing it wrong.  Throw those away and try again.  These goal studies were more on organizational goals but personal goals are not without critics as well.  For example, people who set and fail to achieve their goals may feel badly.  That is kind of like saying some people who fall in love will get their hearts broken, so no one should go on dates.  Goal setting can create a myopic view where people may not go after a better outcome that arrises later it doesn’t fit with the original goal.  The example was someone who had a goal of getting their boss’s job might pass up a promotion in another department or a better job in another company . . . . . . really?  This is what we have to worry about.

Ok, the research does call out things we need to be concerned about.  Unfortunately, most of the research seems to focus just on stretch goals and poorly written goals.  Let’s go over a few healthy goal setting rules:

1.) Know why you want to accomplish your goal.  What is your vision?  What is it that you are trying to accomplish?  Your goals should be in alignment with your ultimate vision.  Goals that do not take you toward your goals are not valid goals.

2.) Goals need to be flexible.  Review your goals and your vision on a regular basis.  Very long term goals (e.g. a high schooler with a goal of becoming a brain surgeon) need to be reviewed at least annually.  Closer in goals need to be reviewed more frequently, for example, an annual goal needs to be reviewed monthly.  When you review your goal, don’t just see if you are on track but check if that goal still fits your vision.

3.) Celebrate every win.  You may have an awesome, motivating goal.  Losing 100 pounds.  Doubling your business.  Whatever.  Something big and powerful.  If that goal got you moving and working, it is a win.  Every pound shed and every point of growth is a win.  Yes.  Losing 80 pounds is not losing 100 but it is still an amazing accomplishment.  Growing your business by 50% is not doubling it but it is worth a celebration.  Even if your business didn’t grow at all but you learned and personally grew, then it is a win.  Focus on the positives.  If you learn from the negatives, there are no negatives, just education.

You failed? Good. Here’s what to do now.

You missed the target.  You totally botched a goal.  You tried to book ten sales calls but ended up only booking one.  You tried to lose 20 pounds but put on 10.  You went for a promotion but got fired instead.  In short, you failed.

I’m a big fan of failure.  I tell my kids, my clients and anyone who will listen that if you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried hard enough.  If you never fail, it means that you played it safe.  You left opportunities unexplored and cards still on the table.  Failing is not an insult or a dirty word.  You should wear failing as a badge of honor and courage.  Failing is the best education you will ever receive – better than Harvard – but only if you do it right.

Once you fail and please try bigger and bigger opportunities until you fail, here’s what you do:

1.) Accept it.  Admit it. – You screwed up.  You failed.  You blew it.  Don’t cover it up.  Don’t keep throwing good money after bad.  Tell you partner.  Tell you friends.  Put it on your Christmas cards.  No shame.  No blame.  It just is.  Now move to step 2.

2.) Damage control – Before you do anything else, did your failure create conditions that need to be addressed to prevent further damage.  For example, you tried to fix your own kitchen sink.  You learned that YouTube only gives you so much plumbing knowhow and you failed.  Go shut off the water and mop up the mess.  We are going to learn and celebrate our fails but make sure the water isn’t going to seep into the wiring first.

3.) Put it into perspective – Did you really fail?  Were you able to make positive things happen.  I worked with a group that was tasked to improve company efficiency.  That was their explicitly articulated and written goal, “Improve company efficiency.”  After months of trying to get a document management system installed they realized the vendor they were working with wasn’t right for the company.  They felt like they failed.  When I asked them why they felt that way, they said it was because they didn’t get the right vendor in.  I asked them to look at their written goal.  It said nothing about launching a document management system.  The process of look for a vendor found some simple process inefficiencies they were able to address which improved company efficiency.  Also, just because the vendor they found wasn’t the right one, nothing was stopping them from finding another one.  It was a fail.  It was simply a delay.

4.) Learn.  Learn.  Learn.  – Did I say learn?  Ask yourself a lot of questions about the fail.  How did you fail?  Why did you fail?  Who should have been involved that wasn’t?  Who shouldn’t have been involved by was?  What things would you try to do differently?  What things would you definitely do again?  Ask.  Ask.  Ask.  Talk it through with ever one involved.  Talk it through with someone who wasn’t involved.  Take a break and talk about it again.  Early in my career, an entire department failed.  The VP left in a scandal.   The entire department quit.  My boss took it over and it was a mess.  He had to hire an entirely new staff, myself included.  We met every Monday and talked through all the mistakes we made the prior week and strategized how to not make those same mistakes again.  It was a painful process but within a few months, we had an efficient and effective department that was easily accomplishing all of our goals.

5.) Celebrate – You should celebrate every fail because it led to learning.  Learning is celebration worthy.  Throw a party.  Some companies will throw a party and have cake when a product or initiative fails.  Enjoy it.