Success, Failure, and the Power of the Rebound

reboundI was married to my first wife for 10 years. We were together for 3 before we married. It was a fabulous adventure, a tale to tell, full of ups, downs, and everything in between. We lived all over the place, followed our hearts, made sacrifices to spend time with friends in far-flung parts of the world, lived and worked overseas, found pleasure in the things that matter most. I thought we would be together forever.

R. Buckminster Fuller knew a thing or two about failure as a part of success. I am fond of his idea that “If the solution is not simple and elegant, it is not the right one.”

As my then wife and I approached our 10th anniversary of being together, I asked her, “How are we doing? Are you still getting what you need from this?” I asked because I, myself, was trying to figure out how I was feeling. We told each other at our wedding that we would check in every ten years or so. It was a joke. Kind of.

At the time, my experience was that we were going pro at misunderstanding each other. We were both moody, prone to swings of withdrawing, frustration, being dishonest about our feelings, things that were seemingly spawned out of thin air. In a word: unhappy.

I cannot speak for her, but here is where I know I went wrong in it: I let that energy affect me. I channeled it back at her. Instead of distinguishing it and extinguishing it, which is what we both wanted, after all, I only coasted on it. I am a most effective antenna, capable of not only picking up on the true feelings of others, but also have to be mindful so as to not let someone else’s energy affect me.

It took a total overhaul, a complete reboot of my life to learn to start to get it right.

Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” His dedication to science is creedo to a whole creative class of knowledge professionals. No doubt, Mr. Edison would be surprised at how it now resonates within historically conservative spheres of business in the US. Companies like Pixar, for example, are radically contributing to the shift. They do not simply encourage their small army of creatives to “fail early and often” but mandate them to. How many years will we have to wait for a complete overhaul, a total reboot whereby successful companies all over the globe begin to find that the best way to succeed is to fail, again and again, until we get it right? Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, recently published a book, Creativity, Inc., that speaks to this so well it’s worthy of its own post.

People who rise to true greatness are intimately familiar with this, even should they keep it on the down low. Seems it is all about being willing to admit failure, own the mistake, and get back up and try again. Most of us will do anything to appear “normal”, though, whatever the heck that means.

As for me, I was not a fit in school. I knew nothing about “normal” because I was most always the new kid. In addition to that, I was too excitable for the classroom, unable to contain my enthusiasm for topics of interest. I wanted to be immersed in conversation, intellectual conversations about things. I wanted to find the smartest people in the room and get my butt kicked about until I was as smart. Smarter. Dad always said, “Want to get good at something? Find someone who is and let them kick your butt at it, over and over, until you are, too.” Great advice. Thanks, Dad.

Even at a young age, it was clear I was not a good fit for the pace of learning in traditional settings. That we moved around a lot probably did much to protect me from otherwise being pigeon-holed as a problem child. I was constantly trying things, failing, trying more things, until making breakthroughs, big and small, in my own learning. I loved project-based learning, labs, and other such opportunities for this reason. I had to make my own mistakes on the slow rise to comprehension and ascension to learning.

If failing is conducive to success, why are so many so resistant to the idea? Are we really that generally self-conscious as an entire race? Guess so.

resilienceIf this is too much, let’s give it some context any sized brain can get interested in: Money.

Where does this idea leave companies? As more and more get hip and secure in this concept of encouraging experimentation, they will need more and more employees like me who aren’t afraid to fail on the way to success. Like my little boy, 2-and-a-half, who I can already tell can barely contain his enthusiasm for what is happening all around him. His passion is so self-evident, his likeness staggering as I watch him learn to learn, see him right in front of me develop his own, unique tools for interpreting and navigating the world around him. There may not be a thing more captivating to me. 2-year-olds are relentless problem solvers. He is, however, learning to ask for help, but that is another post, too ; )

“If we could think of failing as a path towards success, then I think we would all be better off,” said John Krumboltz, an author of Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, and a Professor of Education and Psychology at Stanford University.

The longevity of a trend like this will depend, in part, on positive reinforcement from more than just hiring managers. Parents will need to motivate their young children by protecting them from too much “no” or “never” or “can’t” and “no” and “don’t” and “won’t” and any and all negative notion early on. Parents, don’t laugh at your kids when they fail. Even if it’s cute, be mindful of what message you may be sending. To boot, companies, too, will need to convince prospective hires that they are serious and committed to supporting failure and not just paying trendy lip service to it as a concept or “initiative.”

When my first wife and I divorced, I went on a walkabout. I had the world to carve out, able to craft and build it the way I wanted. You know what? It was too easy. Any of my own, modest successes were too small-minded. I wanted to build something selfless, something larger than myself. I still wanted a family. As the gods would have it, a wonky series of events led to this special little guy showing up in my life. Unplanned? Perhaps. Unexpected? No. I have always known I would be a papa, even as my first wife was staunch about not wanting kids and even as I tried zealously to get on board with that. It was not a question of if, merely when.

Companies on the brink of success need to convince their investors they can rebound after each failure. VCs often learn way more about a company from its failures. It’s the same as play. We can tell way more about someone in 10 minutes of playing with them than in 20 years of working together. Still, finding success through failure is not limited only to companies with billions at their disposal. Any sized business can learn from what Krumboltz calls the “small failures that we should be encouraging.”

It is some years later now and my first wife and I are better friends than ever, having moved beyond our values changing, changes of all sorts and degrees. We talk like two people who might have saved each others’ lives in a war. We are. We set each other free rather than staying together out of fear of the unknown. We are better for it. Want to know what? Relationships between people? They don’t ever really end. They only begin. What we do with them, what we get out of them, as they succeed, as they fail, like business, like learning, like simply living well, is all in how we handle the rebound.