I have a problem with failure – I dwell on it far too much. As with many things, intellectually I understand that failure is simply part of the positive feedback loop of learning, but I still struggle to move on. I do find some small comfort in mantras like, “Let go or be dragged”, “Take the life lesson and move on”, and “If you never fail, then you’re not pushing yourself far enough”. Another exercise that I find helpful is to step into the third person and ask myself what I would say to a friend who wanted to talk about a recent failure; the counsel I would offer in that situation is useful when I apply it to myself. [Case in point: last night I had “the game on my foot”, so-to-speak, in a tight match, but my shot got partially blocked and skimmed wide, and we settled for a harmful 1-1 draw…and I’ve been replaying the sequence in my head for ages. And this is for a rec soccer game that means very little in the grand scheme of things! The third-person says that I did well to work into a position to even get the opportunity, and that even if I’d done something different on the play the result might’ve been the same, and we as a team had many wasted chances, and…]
One could argue that leaders take on a particular risk of failure, in that the leaders are ultimately responsible for choosing a course of action. Additionally, they bear the burden of group failure if something goes wrong. However, you need leaders to take (calculated) risks in order to be exposed to upside, but many leaders shy away out of fear of failure. This fear is why many organizations suffer from the horrible costs of indecision. At Sandvine, our founders have engrained in our corporate philosophy (“The Sandvine Way”) that “3 out of 4 is better than 2 out of 2”, and I personally take comfort in knowing that mistakes are recognized as unavoidable when one is pushing for excellence. If you take responsible risks, you’ll have more successes, but at the cost of occasional mistakes.
Nevertheless, failure sucks. Yeah, yeah, it’s an opportunity to learn, it means you’re pushing yourself and growing, it’s part of life, being annoyed means you care…but come on, failure still sucks.
I know I’m not alone in this unhealthy habit; many (most?) of us have trouble getting over failure and moving forward. But take comfort! Being burdened by failure isn’t something that is limited to particular demographics. Even (especially?) some of the greatest and most accomplished athletes of our time deal with the self-doubt that is a byproduct of failure.
If you haven’t noticed by now, you’ll soon recognize that I’m a bit of a sports nut – I follow many sports and related stories, and I see many parallels between sport and life in general.
Late last year, thanks to a thoroughly entertaining and revealing article in Sports Illustrated, I began to take particular interest in LeBron James. I have immense respect for his drive to work as hard as he does when he has enough natural talent to coast and excel. I’m also not condoning “The Decision”, although I learned the behind-the-scenes story from the quite entertaining book, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN”.
This morning I was reading about how James’ iconic Finals-clinching shot was a perfect reward for the offseason effort he’s invested to refine an already-frighteningly complete game, and in the comments at the bottom of the piece a reader posted a link to an article in Golden Gate Sports. Quoting from the piece, by Samuel Charles:
“Jordan will live the rest of his life never having failed in the NBA Finals, or having been ridiculed mercilessly for doing so, and Mike never needed to summon the will to succeed when the entire world knew he was experiencing a crisis in confidence…His Airness knew no such mortal defects, and we deified him for his perceived perfection, but failure is at the very core of being human, and overcoming those scars its (sic) left on our psyche is a testament to an altogether different kind of greatness, one that requires us to vanquish adversaries of our own making, while offering a reward that’s far more personal…Cloaked in a shell of tattooed muscle, and carrying passengers to the rim for monster dunks on the regular, LeBron appears chiseled out of granite, but we all know he’s fragile and prone to doubting himself, and yet he’s somehow still proud, determined, and to me at least, all the more appealing for his imperfections.”
How we respond to failure is what characterizes us, not the failure itself.
It would be easy to coast through life failure-free, but to do so would require avoiding opportunities to succeed, opportunities to live. LeBron responded to past criticisms by hitting the gym, shooting countless shots, studying game film, and doing whatever he could to strengthen any weakness in his arsenal, even if the weakness was only relative to the rest of his greatness. In the end, he was able to exorcise his Finals demons, but not the self-doubt. Unfortunately, there’s never any guarantee that the opportunity to redeem oneself will always come, as we rarely have complete control of our circumstances. The best we can do is, well, our best. Learn, respond, correct, move forward, etc. and take satisfaction that you’ve tried. For me, in this trivial case that is still on my mind, this means continuing to work on my fitness and to get some practice drilling one timers at a full-sprint.
Elsewhere in life it might mean practicing a presentation beforehand, developing a skill that you need to land your dream job, setting a reminder about a friend’s birthday, or performing better due diligence before making a costly acquisition. A simple lesson indeed, but one that applies to all facets of our existence.