FAIL EARLY. FAIL OFTEN. SUCCEED

December 22, 2016

Some endeavors don't require repetition to obtain success. Other endeavors require insistent repetition. What are some of these endeavors? First, I will look briefly at relationships, both marriage and dating, and then I'll move forward to spend the bulk of the blog discussing productivity and performance. 

 

It's important to be successful at marriage, but research has proven the more often someone fails at marriage, the more likely they will continue to fail. Research shows that in most instances, one or both parties fixes blame on the other person for the marriage failing. Failure happened, but no genuine lesson was learned. 

 

Most of us know someone who is considered "unlucky in love". They date regularly, but things never seem to work out for them. Different people say, "She will be perfect for you..." or "I've checked him out and he's legit." After the disappointments mount up, sooner or later, they choose to either give up on having a relationship or give in to someone that really should be avoided! Again, they experience failure, but no real lesson was learned. 

 

Can someone ultimately be successful in marriage if they have failed at marriage? Even though the research is against them, it is nonetheless possible, just not probable. What about dating? Can someone ultimately find love if they have been unsuccessful a multitude of times before? Even though psychology is against them, it is nonetheless possible, just not probable. 

 

On the other hand, consider walking? No one was ever born successful at this important function. Did we come out of the womb walking? No we didn't and the reason is the muscles and neurological connections necessary to perform this function were undeveloped. We crawled and stumbled before we took a few steps. As we took those steps, our parents were eager to celebrate a very short-lived victory before we tumbled forward to the floor. We know that falling is a part of the process.  By falling, the brain automatically sends the proper messages to the muscles, glands and nerves that facilitate the end result of walking. With each fall and with each subsequent attempt the process of "learning to walk" is automatic.

 

Referencing the earlier examples of marriage and dating, there are no "automatic" messages sending queues to the mind, will and emotions to produce better results with the next attempt. This process of learning after failing must be intentionally managed or else success becomes a hit and miss--trial and error--proposition. How often have you heard someone who failed at marriage or dating say something similar to the following, "Well, that didn't work. Let me objectively evaluate what I learned from this situation so that I can make a much better decision in the future."

 

We don't hear those statements, right? On the contrary, we hear blame and excuses without personal responsibility and objective accountability. Since our failed relationships are more often than not seen as the fault of the other person, we indirectly excuse ourselves from the classroom when the greatest lessons for future success can be learned!

 

A PERSONAL STORY

 

Several years ago, I was in the midst of a financial transaction that, upon completion, would have netted a substantial profit for my family, as well as, my business partners. The process was moving along fluidly, until a new commercial banker was assigned to our transaction. Sadly, this new banker did not desire to see our project succeed. He craftily manipulated bank policies for our detriment and to remove the bank from the responsibility of finalizing the commercial building transaction. When he finished his devilish plot, I was left responsible for a sizable bank note and a few, very disgruntled business partners. 

 

Additionally, this could not have happened at a worst time. Omeka and I had recently moved to another city and opened a new office for the consulting company. There I was with an unfinished commercial project, bank note and disgruntled business partners, along with a new office and a recently relocated family looking to me for financial responsibility! How was I to handle this? How would I respond to this apparent failure? 

 

Even though the transaction going sour was beyond my control, I felt as though I failed my business partners, family and other interested persons. I sat at home for a few days without speaking much to my wife and kids. I was very angry at the banker and expressed my anger verbally and in writing, but to know avail. On the second day, my wife provided much needed encouragement. After this, I left the house, went by the office and then went to grab some lunch. As I sat for lunch and prayed, I decided to call my business mentor. 

 

I proceeded to spell out to him all the particulars of the situation and the liability upon my shoulders. He asked me a few questions about the transaction and listened intently to my responses. After a short pause, he said the following, "So, Marcus, what's the lesson you need to learn from this situation?" I proceeded to rattle a few remarks off the cuff, but he was quick to interject, "No, I don't mean the emotional stuff. I'm speaking about the lessons you need to learn so that in your next transaction your will be sharper and better." 

 

Did he just say, "the next transaction?" I balked and said, "Sir, with all due respect, I'm not doing this again. I've learned my lesson." "So," he replied, "Your lesson learned is to not engage in this transaction anymore?" With that comment, I paused and noticed how presently real but ridiculous my statement was. Slowly I replied, "No...but..." Before I could finish, he said in a compassionate but firm tone, "Marcus, every failure, when handled properly, brings with it the seeds of an equivalent, positive result." 

 

When he said those words, my mind went back to my early 20's when I read the book Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. He made the same statement regarding failure. As I submitted to the wisdom of my mentor, that evening I opened my Bible and began reading the book of Proverbs. The next day, I downloaded Think And Grow Rich on my Audible app and started listening to it again. 

 

I tell this story to show the very real emotions that accompany failure. These emotions don't come with intelligence, but simply feelings that scream, "I don't want to feel this way again!" Haven't we all experienced this? Haven't we all experienced failure in a particular endeavor and told ourselves, "I will never put myself in that situation again." It's these feelings, experienced directly or indirectly that provoke us to live within the parameters of comfort and avoidance of risk. 

 

Most people don't have a mentor such as I had who guided me intelligently beyond my emotions and into the real classroom of failure. Most haven't realized that failing in life doesn't have an automatic training mechanism that produces perseverance to succeed like the brain does for a child who is learning to walk. If a one year old child were to fall while attempting to walk and suddenly refuse to get up and attempt again, what conclusion would we come to?

 

WE NEED TO FAIL

 

Unfortunately, we think that people who experience success have been so gifted by God or luck that surely they never had to experience failure. On the surface, we believe this to be true, but when thought is given, we all know the logic is faulty. It was Wayne Gretzky, one of the greatest hockey players of all time who said, "You always miss 100% of the shots you never take." It was Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in NBA history who said, "I have succeeded because I have failed." 

 

Warren Buffet didn't develop the discernment, gut instinct and expertise to build a hundred-billion dollar investment portfolio by failing and then quitting to try something else. He built this portfolio, by failing early, often and learning from those failures. It was his father who introduced him to experimenting with trading stocks when he was 12 years old. George Washington Carver didn't develop the acumen, instincts and intelligence in science and agriculture by playing it safe and functioning without risk. He became a world renowned scientist, by failing early, often and learning from those failures. What about Marie Curie, the Noble Prize winning physicist and chemist?  Everyday she and her husband failed in the laboratory. They failed and learned; failed and learned; and failed and learned until the "eureka" moment when they made discoveries that pushed science forward. 

 

To be successful in professional endeavors, we must fail early and fail often, but this is not the world that the average person lives within. It's contrary to how the average person has learned to think about productivity and success. The average person lives within the parameters of non risk and comfort so as to avoid failure as if it is the plague. Failure isn't the plague, it actually carries the elixir. This elixir cures us from the poison of average, mediocrity or non success. 

 

In his landmark book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin takes several chapters to explain a concept he calls "deliberate practice." According to Colvin, deliberate practice is, "intentionally, intensely and repetitiously practicing objectives just beyond one's level of competence while gaining feedback on results." The key, says Colvin, "is to provoke failure in an environment of learning and support." Whether deliberately or accidentally, every person who has succeeded in any field, whether sports or business, has engaged deliberate practice. 

 

PARENTING FOR SUCCESS

 

Parents, sports coaches, even business managers and mentors have an all important role in the process of growth and development of persons under their charge. Undoubtedly, the most important role is that of parent. As parents, we have the earliest and most consistent opportunity to put our children in environments that challenge their abilities and then coach them through failure. In far too many cases, parents unintentionally end up managing mediocrity while fussing about excellence. 

 

How often do parents say to a child that struggles at reading, "Boy, get out that book and read." Yet, that same child rarely ever has the parent read alongside them and help them with the difficulty of developing this skill. How often do parents allow their children to quit a sport, class or extracurricular activity because "its tougher than what the child anticipated"? Parenting is a multifaceted and difficult responsibility, yet we must be cognizant of the fact that most of the opportunities our children will face will require short term failure, which will yield long term success. 

 

I was on a flight headed to Denver a few weeks ago and ended up having a wonderful conversation with an executive with a major telecommunications firm. During our conversation, she revealed that she had a bachelors and masters in mathematics. Intrigued by this level of attainment, I asked her, "So, when did you know you loved math in order to obtain two degrees in the field?" Her response was, "I don't really like math all that much, but I really like the challenge it presents." Placing my executive coaching hat on, I replied, "Please explain further..." 

 

She remarked, "Well, my parents would routinely put me in environments that challenged me and I hated it. They would always say, 'Things that come easy don't give the greatest reward.'" Containing my inward excitement, I motioned for her to continue. She angled a little in her seat and said, "During my undergraduate and graduate work, my grades followed a general pattern: F, F, D, C, A, A." I interjected, "Please repeat that.

 

After she repeated herself, she said, "By the consistent guidance of my parents I understood that failing at something didn't automatically mean I couldn't master it. It just meant I needed to work harder to get the results." No matter how many stories I hear of parents providing this type context for their children, it is always refreshing because the implications are so substantial. 

 

TEAM SPORTS

 

Sports coaches also have the important task of training skill and ability in an environment of failure and learning. Having played sports nearly all my life, I have been on football fields and in basketball gyms for nearly 30 years. I have been coached by tremendous coaches and I've also been coached by bad ones. Additionally, I have observed and learned from great coaches, while also learning what not to do from the bad ones. As I reflect on this degree of experience, I find that most coaches don't understand the fail early; fail often concept. 

 

Unfortunately, far too many coaches see failure as failure as opposed to a stepping stone to success. A coach maybe adept at the "X's and O's" of the respective sport and marginal at really developing the potential of players in an intentional environment of deliberate practice. Coaches should study each player on their roster and intentionally design practice to take specific skills to the next level, within a game-time system. The initial expectation shouldn't be success, but failure. Failure and learning from those failures is the expectation. If the individual is always succeeding in practice, then the practice isn't really developing the player. 

 

Certainly, this will look differently depending upon the competitive level of the respective sport, but to some degree this matrix must be implemented. Using science as an analogy, practice should be the lab and the game should be the field assignment. In the scientific lab there are many opportunities for failure, but also time and effort learning from those failures. Practices in the sports environment should borrow heavily from this perspective.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL SUCCESS 

 

What about business managers and their role in developing people. Do we find deliberate practice and employee development as a top priority of most organizations? Sadly this isn't the case. The phenomenon from the sports arena proliferates in the business arena as well. Just as far too many coaches only train players for skills to be successful in "their scheme," so also managers only manage people to get a job done. This is opposed to developing people so they can grow the competitive advantage of the company. Richard Branson, the world-renowned entrepreneur says to companies, "Train people so well they could leave, but treat them so well they don't want to." 

 

Managers should have a strong collaborative relationship with the Human Resources department to access the present skill set of employees while providing training opportunities to develop skills not yet proficient. This is even true for those currently performing at a very high level. These undeveloped skills, which everyone has--when developed--should directly impact the competitive advantage of the company. Liz Wiseman, corporate consultant and trainer, puts it this way in a recent talk, "Managers have the responsibility of supersizing the jobs of key employees while coaching them in their development to fill the new, super-sized role." 

 

Parents, coaches, and managers must intentionally place the people under their charge into environments where they can fail early; fail often and learn from those failures. Failure must be the most regular occurrence, with learning from those failures following at a very close second. If this doesn't happen, the persons under the charge of such leaders develop a "play it safe" mentality and never fully develop his or her potential. They have been taught intentionally or unintentionally that failure is to be avoided. 

 

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

 

If you are a parent, coach or manager, what type environment have you created for the people under your leadership? Do the people under your charge feel comfortable failing as they learn and develop or do they fear failure due to the response they get from you? Have you created an environment of deliberate practice which specifically develops skills and abilities beyond the present proficiency of the individual? How about this. Are you more proficient at your scheme or department objectives than you are at the potential of your team? Learning from failure must be the norm within your organization, department, team or family.

 

If you are the person on a team, part of the department or organization, what is your perspective of failure? Are you playing it safe or pushing the limits on your previous successes? Has past failure regulated you to marginality or are you expanding your horizons by failing regularly and intentionally learning from those failures? How about this. Have you exempted yourself from the classroom of learning because the voice of your feelings during failure have been too great? 

 

Do you want to succeed? Is productivity and success within your field a desired outcome, and if so, more than likely you are behind schedule in failing and learning from those failures. What is my advice for you today? Get busy failing and develop relationships with people who will help you learn from those failures. If you are a parent, coach or manager, get to work immediately creating a culture where failure through deliberate practice is normal, but so also is learning from those failures. When failure happens, the average person is tempted to quit. It is being resistant to those feelings that provokes the individual to move beyond those feelings into a greater space of productivity and performance. 

 

 

 

 

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