Embracing Rejects

Football is back this week, and around here it is literally coming home. Our local team (really local… our house sits right at the top of the hill behind the “stadium” pictured above), the Wycombe Wanderers, were sitting down in League Two (in English football, that is the 4th level down after Premiership, Championship and League One…that’s 68 teams above you at least) as recently as 2013. I watched the horror of the “Chairboys” (Wycombe is historically famous for being a manufacturing centre for chairs) lost their lead in the final minutes of a playoff which would have promoted them. Such a setback (as well as many other misfortunes to befall them) might have been the death knell for many an organization. But the Wembley curse was erased with their playoff win this year promoting them to the Championship league of English football (probably the closest equivalent in similar stature is AAA Minor League baseball in the USA…not the majors, but serious and supported professional competition).

One of the ingredients of their success was embracing veteran players that other teams passed over for failing to be young enough or healthy enough. A band of footballing journeymen whose fairy tale season could be produced into a Disney movie of “Bad News Bears” meets “The Expendibles”. The BBC describes their embrace of these rejects:

Wycombe Wanderers: The ‘rejects’ behind their rise to the Championship

  • Wycombe Wanderers start their first ever Championship campaign on Saturday after overcoming financial troubles and proving everyone wrong to win promotion from the third tier. But what are the insights behind one of the best underdog stories in English football?… While undoubtedly partly down to financial restraints, the club – spearheaded by long-serving boss Ainsworth – give chances to players who perhaps felt they had reached the end of the road, and make it work time and time again…’I’d say a good 75% of our squad could write a book on their lives – not just inside football but outside of football – you’re talking gritty things that most people would take to the grave.’…’I don’t know of any bigger feat in English football history than what we’ve achieved,’ Charles told BBC Sport…’A lot of the lads here are rejects. They come here after falling out of love with the game and being mistreated somewhere,’ he said. ‘But the first day you walk through those doors you start to fall in love with football again.’…’They’re going to hate us in the Championship because we’re happy when things aren’t going well and when things are going well’.”

Wycombe Wanderers failure

Minding Failure

Mindfulness Day today. And failure is something to be plenty mindful of…in a good way. As Leticia Gasca compellingly articulates in her TED Salon talk “Don’t Fail Fast – Fail Mindfully” (thanks Mom):

  • “I realized that sharing your failures makes you stronger, not weaker. And being open to my vulnerability helped me connect with others in a deeper and more meaningful way and embrace life lessons I wouldn’t have learned previously. As a consequence of this experience of sharing stories of businesses that didn’t work, we decided to create a platform of events to help others share their failure stories. And we called it Fuckup Nights.”
  • ·”On the night we invented Fuckup Nights, we never imagined that the movement would grow this big. We are in 80 countries now. In that moment, our only intention was to put the topic of failure on the table. To help our friends see that failure is something we must talk about. It is not a cause of humiliation, as it used to be in the past, or a cause of celebration, as some people say. In fact, I want to confess something. Every time I listen to Silicon Valley types or students bragging about failing fast and often like it’s no big deal, I cringe. Because I think that there is a dark side on the mantra ‘fail fast.’ Of course, failing fast is a great way to accelerate learning and avoid wasting time. But I fear that when we present rapid failure to entrepreneurs as their one and only option, we might be promoting laziness. We might be promoting that entrepreneurs give up too easily. I also fear that the culture of rapid failure could be minimizing the devastating consequences of the failure of a business. For instance, when my social enterprise died, the worst part was that I had to go back to the indigenous community and tell the women that the business had failed and it was my fault. For some people this could be seen like a great learning opportunity for me, but the truth is that the closure of this business represented much more than that. It meant that the women would stop receiving an income that they really needed.”

Mindfulness is about connecting with the present embracing the sensations, feelings and thoughts of the moment. As failure is a integral part of everyday life, a mindful ethos means embracing the sensations, feelings and thoughts that accompany those failures. Gasca tells us that embracing failure isn’t about shrugging it off and getting past it as “fast” a possible, but instead to fully appreciate its pain as well as its silver linings.

Embracing Sickness

· “Sometimes you have to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.”

No surprise that his group named "Diversity" does such justice to this inspired piece by choreography genius Ashley Banjo about justice. This timely piece portrays a social silver lining to the pandemic in a compelling way.

Star Quality Leadership

Cinefix’s "Top 10" lists are simply the most authoritative film reviews deftly balancing consideration of artistic merit with sheer entertainment value. Watching every flick on their most recent instalment, "Cinema’s Top 10 Leaders of All Time", (and the honorable mentions) would do more good for most aspiring leaders than your typical MBA.

I have watched every one mentioned in the video review and can personally vouch that every single one is worthy of a couple hours of your time. The list doesn’t rank them as simple top ten, but instead come up with ten leadership qualities exemplified by different characters:

  1. Expertise – The Kaptinenlieutenant – Das Boot
  2. Follow Through – Ellen Ripley – Aliens
  3. Surrounds Self with the Best – Kambei – Seven Samurai
  4. Humility – Aragorn – The Lord of the Rings
  5. Communication – Gene Kranz – Apollo 13
  6. Integrity – Erin Brockovich – Erin Brockovich
  7. Service Leadership – T’Challa – Black Panther
  8. Fosters Unity – Coach Herman Boone – Remember the Titans
  9. Emotional IQ – Juror #8 – 12 Angry Men
  10. Visionary – Martin Luther King, Jr. – Selma

I would say that the 10th one, “Visionary”, portrays the “optimise upside” dimension of how I define Leadership all of the others would really fall more into the great “Management” (minimise downside). Somehow I suspect that a piece titled “Cinema’s Top 10 Managers” might not have had the same pulling power.

Embracing Holding Back

The Tour de France is another worldwide sporting event who has embraced holding back (crowds) for the sake of social welfare and safety. Just another smart tactical retreat to sacrifice a fine tradition and spectacle for the higher priority of saving lives. The throttling of activity evokes a similar moment of heroism in another cycle race:

  • · Incredible moment a cyclist REFUSES to overtake his rival after the athlete suffers a puncture near finish line Cyclist Agustin Navarro was coming fourth in contest in Cantabria, Spain But as he approached finish line, he saw his rival had suffered a puncture Ismael Esteban was sprinting toward line with his bike over his shoulders In touching move, Mr Navarro slowed down and refused to overtake rival Instead he rode behind Mr Esteban, allowing him to win the bronze medal Mr Esteban later tried to give the prize to Mr Navarro – but he refused it When cyclist Agustin Navarro’s rival suffered a puncture near the finish line of a big competition, it was the perfect opportunity for him to speed into third place and win the bronze medal. But in an incredible display of sportsmanship, Mr Navarro slowed down and refused to overtake competitor Ismael Esteban, following him as he ran along the road with his bike on his shoulders. Footage of the scene shows stunned spectators applauding Mr Navarro’s gesture and cheering the two men as they make it over the finish line – Mr Esteban, by foot; Mr Navarro, on his bike. This week, Mr Navarro, who has been praised by Internet users for his gentlemanly act, described how he braked ‘out of respect for somebody who had been superior in every moment.’ He told a local newspaper: ‘I don’t want to win like that. ‘To overtake him just before the finish line would have been unethical.’ Amazingly, a grateful Mr Esteban tried to give his bronze medal to Mr Navarro after the contest. However, his opponent stoutly refused the prize. Mr Navarro said Mr Esteban would have won the race had it not been for the two problems he had with his bike, adding: ‘Offering me the prize was worth more than what I did for him.’”

In the race to fight the global pandemic, many people are stepping back to take a loss for the sake of the bigger win that all of society life more safety.

Embracing Resigning

Backgammon

The World Backgammon Championships are taking place this week where skills of leadership and management, as well as embracing failure will be on world-class display. I’ve written a few times about the lesson from risk taking in poker, but a similar game which combines strategy with risk is Backgammon. A number of core principles to the game involve balancing upside with downside, as well as embracing risk.

  • · Superior Position is a Combination of both Upside and Downside – Backgammon appears to be a race to get your pieces around and off the board. But it is really a “race to position” (a critical part of which, like so many domains, start with controlling the centre with chess and military battlefields being a few prominent examples). The first player to superior position doubles and (usually) wins. A superior position entails both (a) the upside of having a strong attack on the opponent’s back pieces, and (b) ensuring that your own back pieces have contained downside by being in a safe enough position to escape.
  • · The Power of Resigning – When I first started playing computer Backgammon at the Master level, the biggest hole in my game was accepting doubles. The computer would double against me and too often I accepted it when I really was in a position of inferiority. Instead of resigning with 1 lost point, I would almost always lose with 2 (doubled). But even worse, by carrying on the game from a weak position, I would quite regularly go from bad to worse where a mere loss would turn into a gammon losing twice as many points more. The best thing I did to improve my performance was to resign more readily.

Embracing Ducks

A different sort of “up from the ashes” story about the Ashes Fifth Test this day in history 72 years ago (1948). The superb “Numberphile” channel on YouTube covered the sheer exceptionality of the defeat in his brilliantly analytical style:

  • · “Near misses are one of the biggest regrets in life. It amplifies the ‘if only…’ torture. You think that all you had to do was this little thing and a big success would be yours. Unfortunately, life is a never-ending sequence of little things and they all don’t go your way. We often ignore and take for granted all the little things that did go our way. Like how many little flukes compounded to get him to the 100 run average in the first place. If he had hit 0 on any of those days, there wouldn’t be a YouTube video about the event.”

A perverse sort of failure where Don Bradman failed to succeed beyond the unimaginable. While Bradman suffered a exceptionally failed Fifth Test at bat, he still succeeded in making his mark in history. He had achieved so much to that point that he had at least guaranteed notoriety for his achievement – either fame for 100 run batting average or fame for missing such an achievement with so little remaining do.

Staring Death in the Face vs. 20% Risk

  

  • The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel. It’s a wonderful way to live. It’s the only way to drive.” – James Hunt

Until recently, this would be about the time of the German Grand Prix, but failure to secure adequate support left it on the scrap heap of races (considerably before the added challenge of coronavirus).

We recently watched the film based on the most famous German Grand Prix in 1976 when Niki Lauda tragically crashed and came about as close to death as a human can and not cross over.

Not only is Hunt’s quote a classic embrace of ‘failure’, the two rivals in the race – James Hunt and Niki Lauda – portray the Leadership (Hunt) Management (Lauda) dichotomy in risk attitudes:

  • James Hunt: Yes, I was. I admit it. I was prepared to die to beat you that day. And that’s the effect you have on me. You’d pushed me that far. And it felt great. I mean, hell, isn’t that we’re in this for? To stare death in the face, and to cheat it? Come on, there’s nobility in that. It’s… it’s like being knights.
  • Niki Lauda: You English, you’re such assholes. You know my position. Twenty percent risk.

Lauda argues to Hunt that, yes, his aggressive style will win him a few races, but he won’t score points race in and race out throughout the season. The film is a relatively balanced portrayal of these two perspectives of risk, and if anything, slanted slightly toward a vindication of management as Lauda’s apprehensive turned out to be tragically on the mark.

Failure IS an Option

"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing you are not innovating." – Elon Musk in 2005 at the outset of his Space X venture

Happy Birthday Elon Musk! Musk seems like a modern icon of success having pioneered new technologies and new marketplaces. He has achieved the rare accomplishment of leading revolutionary companies which transformed their distinct industries. Steve Jobs’ SIC brace was founding Pixar which transformed entertainment, and Apple which transformed computing. But Elon Musk has pretty much achieved an industry hat trick transforming finance (PayPal), automobile (Tesla) and aerospace (SpaceX).

If you had any question about his embrace of failure along the way, check out the video (above) of launch failures assembled and published by SpaceX itself. And yet this parade of failures has led to one of the most successful commercial space launches in history – 60 Starlink internet satellites put in orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket on the 3rd of June. Lori and I were a couple of the millions to stared into the starry night to watch the eerie “space train” of pinpoints of light marching across the summer night sky.

And to top it all off, Elon recently joined the new season of “Rick and Morty” in a bit of fun-poking at his expense.

   

Embracing Changing Your Mind

Gapingvoid - agony of change

  • Ch-ch-changes / Turn and face the strange” – David Bowie

One of the most essential and most difficult skills in embracing failure is the ability to change your mind.

Seth Godin describes the challenge in his post What does it sound like when you change your mind?:

  • “It took me eighteen months to change my mind. Actually, that’s not true. It took me about five minutes to change my mind, after eighteen months of being wrong. I still remember how it felt to feel that flip switch in my head. This is one of the assets of youth, and something that’s worth seeking out and maintaining. That flip, the ability, when confronted with a world that doesn’t match the world in your head, to say, ‘wait, maybe I was wrong.’ We’re not good at that. Science brings us overwhelming data about the truth of washing hands before surgery, of the age and origin of species, about the efficacy of placebos, and the natural instinct is push those facts away, rather than find that moment where were can shift our thinking. If you needed to, could you argue passionately for that thing you don’t believe in today? Could you imagine walking over to the other side of the new argument, to once again hear that sound? That’s the essential skill of thriving in a world that’s changing fast.”

A great example of mind changing is Latif Nasser’s TED talk “You have no idea where camels really come from” sharing the story of how camel bones were found in the Arctic…

  • “But at any moment, you could uncover some tiny bit of evidence. You could learn some tiny thing that forces you to reframe everything you thought you knew. Like, in this case, this one scientist finds this one shard of what she thought was wood, and because of that, science has a totally new and totally counterintuitive theory about why this absurd Dr. Seuss-looking creature looks the way it does. And for me, it completely upended the way I think of the camel. It went from being this ridiculously niche creature suited only to this one specific environment, to being this world traveler that just happens to be in the Sahara, and could end up virtually anywhere.”

Godin refers to this cognitive reset ad “the flip” – The flip is elusive:

  • “For the rest of us, though, the flip isn’t something that happens at the first glance or encounter with new evidence. This doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t matter. It means that we’re bad at admitting we were wrong. Bad at giving up one view of the world to embrace the other. Mostly, we’re bad at abandoning our peers, our habits and our view of ourselves. If you want to change people’s minds, you need more than evidence. You need persistence. And empathy. And mostly, you need the resources to keep showing up, peeling off one person after another, surrounding a cultural problem with a cultural solution.”

A common refrain in the coronavirus commentary is that the pandemic "changes everything”. Maybe that will include a number of minds.