Happy Anniversary to me. Well, this blog. Today marks 11 years blogging on Turning Adversity to Advantage as well as Leadership and Management. My friend Hugh similar straddles Leadership and Failure (and many other topics) and his piece above (which coincidentally he shared on my anniversary last year). I not only appreciate the vibrancy and colour of the piece, I applaud the celebration of grit and complexity which is imbued in all good leadership. Too many people think that leadership is floating to the top above all that mess. When in reality, the best leaders have the ability and do dive into the nitty gritty at any point.
A few cases in point. First, one of the great leader/managers, Bill Gates, always astounded me when he did Q&A. He could answer the abstract 30,000 foot questions with poise and clarity (eg. Q: “What is the biggest management challenge?” Bill’s answer, “Getting high IQs to add up. Strangely, when you get a bunch of high IQ people together, collectively their intelligence drops. A good manage gets all the IQ working together in one direction.”). But he could also dive into the most esoteric issues. Some technical director would ask him about why Microsoft chose some approach to handling memory management with the new chip architectures. Most CEOs would say that they would have to have someone get back to them with the details, but Billg jumped in with enthusiasm describing the various constraints of the new architecture and the compiler considerations and trade-offs.
Second, another Microsoft friend of mine, Andrew Voysey, recounted his bucket list journey sailing across the Atlantic. He joined a charter with a number of enthusiastic sailors led by the charter captain with many years and crossings under his belt. The captain briefed the crew on the procedures and protocols at the outset of the journey. When it can to the tedious chore of setting watch, all the crew was split into a rota. All except the captain who didn’t have to take a shift. Andrew challenged him saying, “Everything I’ve ever learned about great leadership is that the leader supports the team and gets stuck in with them. Why don’t you take a share of the dirty work of staying up for watch in the middle of the night? ” The captain responded cryptically, “At some point in the journey you will find out.” Well, all was going fine until one day they hit a major storm. The man on watch came down to the cabin and woke him up to alert him. The captain ordered everyone to get their lifesaving suits on, hunker down below in the cabin and shut the boat up tight while he manned the helm. The captain wrestled with the boat for 36 hours straight of high winds and seas until conditions finally settled. As he stumbled into the cabin heading for bed, he turned to Andrew and said, “That’s why I don’t take a watch. When the proverbial hits the fan and I need to be the one sorting the mess out, you want me fresh and not just having come off a long watch shift.”
Powered by failure for 11 years.
…if you let them. Today’s treat is the trick of embracing failure to fight the zombie idea apocalypse. Admitting wrong can be the sawn-off shotgun to combat them. Daniel W. Drezner’s piece, “The Uses of Being Wrong”, describes:
- “My new book has an odd intellectual provenance—it starts with me being wrong. … Confessions of wrongness in academic research should be unsurprising. (To be clear, being wrong in a prediction is different from making an error. Error, even if committed unknowingly, suggests sloppiness. That carries a more serious stigma than making a prediction that fails to come true.) Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the social sciences is aware that, by and large, we do not get an awful lot of things right. Unlike that of most physical and natural scientists, the ability of social scientists to conduct experiments or rely on high-quality data is often limited. In my field, international relations, even the most robust econometric analyses often explain a pathetically small amount of the data’s statistical variance…The persistence of so-called ‘zombie ideas’ is something of a problem in the social sciences…Why is it so hard for scholars to admit when they are wrong? It is not necessarily concern for one’s reputation. Even predictions that turn out to be wrong can be intellectually profitable—… Part of the reason is simple psychology; we all like being right much more than being wrong. As Kathryn Schulz observes in Being Wrong, ‘the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal, and (perhaps most oddly) almost entirely undiscriminating…It’s more important to bet on the right foreign policy than the right racehorse, but we are perfectly capable of gloating over either one." … I know colleagues who make fantastically bold predictions, and I envy their serene conviction that they are right despite ample evidence to the contrary…Schulz argues in Being Wrong that ‘the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.’ …Blogging and tweeting encourages the airing of contingent and tentative arguments as events play out in real time. As a result, far less stigma attaches to admitting that one got it wrong in a blog post than in peer-reviewed research. Indeed, there appears to be almost no professional penalty for being wrong in the realm of political punditry. Regardless of how often pundits make mistakes in their predictions, they are invited back again to pontificate more. As someone who has blogged for more.”
If you want to celebrate National Writing Day today, a bit of embracing failure might be called for…
- “As Kandinsky says, ‘Everything starts with a dot.” Sometimes the hardest thing in writing a story is where to start. You don’t need to have a great idea, you just have to put pen to paper. Start with a bad idea, start with the wrong direction, start with a character you don’t like, something positive will come out of it’.” – Marion Deuchars, illustrator and author of Let’s Make Some Great Art
- “Use anger to drive forwards, to complete and improve your work. Every bully or doubter who has sparked anger in your chest has generously donated fuel to your writing fire. Prove them wrong.” – M.G. Leonard, author of Beetle Boy
- “Give yourself permission to be terrible. There’s nothing more paralysing than trying to write a perfect novel in one draft. Do your best to turn off your inner editor and just write. Everything can be fixed later! – Sarah Rubin, author of Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue
Happy Birthday Hugh. Of all my failure embracing thought leaders, Hugh’s drawings feature more frequently than Scott Adams legendary Dilbert on this blog, and he is quoted more than anyone save Seth Godin. For a catalogue of his quirkily illustrated insights, I not only recommend his book “Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity”, I give it away a birthday present often.
I’ve longed linked the concepts “embracing failure” and skepticism” in this blog (skepticism embraces the failure of knowing), but today they are merged in celebration of both International Failure Day and International Skeptics Day. To celebrate, I thought I’d share one of my favourite TED talks that strikes at the heart of both:
- “It simply is not true to say that we live in an age of disbelief — no, we believe today just as much as any time that came before. Some of us may believe in the prophecy of Brené Brown or Tony Robbins. We may believe in the bible of The New Yorker or the Harvard Business Review. We may believe most deeply when we worship right here at the church of TED, but we desperately want to believe, we need to believe. We speak in the tongues of charismatic leaders that promise to solve all our problems. We see suffering as a necessary act of the capitalism that is our god, we take the text of technological progress to be infallible truth. And we hardly realize the human price we pay when we fail to question one brick, because we fear it might shake our whole foundation. But if you are disturbed by the unconscionable things that we have come to accept, then it must be questioning time. So I have not a gospel of disruption or innovation or a triple bottom line. I do not have a gospel of faith to share with you today, in fact. I have and I offer a gospel of doubt. The gospel of doubt does not ask that you stop believing, it asks that you believe a new thing: that it is possible not to believe. It is possible the answers we have are wrong, it is possible the questions themselves are wrong. Yes, the gospel of doubt means that it is possible that we, on this stage, in this room, are wrong. Because it raises the question, "Why?" With all the power that we hold in our hands, why are people still suffering so bad?”
Faith is not the unwavering belief that you know everything. Faith is the unwavering belief that life can go on, have meaning, have purpose, and have hope even though you don’t know everything. The more you doubt, the deeper your faith.
“I recommend that you all get fired – it’s a great learning experience.” – Anna Wintour
In adulthood, the consequences of failure seem all the more dire, but actually no less worthy of embrace. The penultimate failure (after mortality which is the ultimate tragedy no one wants to embrace) is job failure – termination…getting fired. Any yet, many people recount poignant stories about how such a jarring turn of professional events set their lives on remarkably positive directions…
- Maria Hatzistefanis – Founder of global luxury skincare brand Rodial shares her story “Being Fired Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (paywalled) – “I was shocked, but not surprised. ‘Oh my God, only losers get fired,’ I thought. ‘Am I a loser?’ For the first time in my life, I had no job, nor any idea of what I would do next. I panicked. But then something strange happened – after a few sad days, I accepted that they have done me a favour. I wasn’t right for the job, and sometimes things need to be taken out of your hands.”
- Mika Brzezinski – National new presenter recounts her odyssey of being let go and enduring months of fruitless job searching in the piece “The Road Not Taken: How Getting Fired Boosted My Career” – “It took many more months, but I called every network known to man and begged for ANY job they had available. I found myself LEAPING at the opportunity to work a day rate, part-time, freelance job at MSNBC reading 30 second news cut-ins — a job I probably would have scoffed at 15 years prior. Eight weeks into working the ‘cut-in shift’ at MSNBC, Don Imus was knocked off the air for making unfortunate comments. MSNBC was on the hunt for a new morning show…I was back on the road again.”
- John Lloyd – Television producer shared his termination in the article “Douglas Adams sacked me, then I changed ITV” (paywalled) – “In 1978, I’d resigned as a radio producer, partly to helped Douglas Adams write the first series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Then Douglas decided to write it on his own. But disaster turned out to be a gift.”
If you get “fired”, then get “fired up”.
Have your kids failed enough today? You might think that they fail too much every day. But what about celebrating some of those failures instead of just correcting or chastising them? That’s what the father of billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely did on a daily basis. She shares this routine confessional of her childhood in the Inc article “Billionaire CEO Sara Blakely Says These 7 Words Are the Best Career Advice She Ever Got” (thanks Karen) which is also echoed in her interview above:
- “Yet when asked what the best advice she ever received was, she doesn’t talk about success. Instead, she talks about how, as a child, her father would sit her down at the dining room table and ask her the same question: ‘What did you fail at this week?’ He didn’t want to know how many As she’d gotten. He wasn’t interested in how many girl scout cookies she’d sold, how many goals she’d scored on her soccer team, or whether she’d gotten a perfect score on her math test. No, he wanted to know what she had failed at. And when she told him, do you know what his reaction was? He high-fived her.”
The documentary film ‘Race To Nowhere” looks the stresses on children to succeed in education these days highlighted the same message in the review by Cynthia Joyce”
- “There’s a key scene in the documentary ‘Race to Nowhere’ when a high school student asks, ‘If I can’t fail, and make mistakes, then how can I be expected to learn?’ Such a question might earn a stern slap on the wrist from ‘Tiger Mom’ Amy Chua. But it’s an astute observation and one that drives home the main point of the film: that our preoccupation with testing and performance has undermined actual learning in the classroom, and may even be threatening the healthy development of kids, who frequently feel overwhelmed by the pressure to excel at all costs.”
These comments reminded me of a “Working Families” conference where I presented a paper. Lancashire (Gen Y) student on the panel provided the obverse perspective of not embracing failure in one’s childhood:
- “Generation Y have grown up having never had to deal with failure (because often you got an award for just showing up) and as a result they often have difficulty taking critical feedback. I remember when I first failed at something at school, it nearly crushed me. There is a fragility in Gen Y that comes from this lack of having to confront failure.”