Category Archives: Failure

Mistakes Were Made

Uncle Lou, our March Madness Bracket Master and Chief Referee, sent an email to our group with “Mistakes Were Made” in his subject line.

What a great subject line, especially from our referee!

It let us all know right up front that things aren’t perfect, and it revealed the one thing many of us avoid admitting at all costs:  mistakes.

Mistakes can be the first step toward that other really bad thing in life:  FAILURE!

Mistakes and failures.  Even more powerful in our lives is the fear of making mistakes, and experiencing failures.

Fear is a good thing.  It keeps us alive.  But, it can also stop us from taking action, changing course, making corrections, or dumping one idea in exchange for another (possibly better, but maybe worse) idea.

Imagine if you wrote an email every day, or maybe just once a week with the subject:  Mistakes Were Made.  In this magical email, you’d describe the areas where you made mistakes, describe the failures that had happened that day or that week, and spell out what you learned.

As challenging as writing this email might be, once it’s written, send it to your boss.  And then send it to the people who report to you.

Does this little challenge strike fear in your heart?  That’s natural.  You should do it anyway.  By admitting your mistakes, you’re letting your boss and those who report to you know that you are human.  You are vulnerable.  You don’t have all the answers.

None of us likes to admit to our mistakes or our failures.  But, the act of admission frees us from the fear and other emotional baggage that we often carry when we make mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes and failures is the first step toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness lies on the opposite side of our fear.  Its power against fear cannot be underestimated.  A forgiving mindset, especially toward ourselves, opens us up to real learning and improvement.

I remember learning to water ski.  After a while, my brother and I were pretty good skiers.  We could go for miles and miles slaloming, jumping across the wake, and throwing up huge rooster tails without falling.  That was nice, but our dad had a different view.  He used to say that if we weren’t falling, at least occasionally, we weren’t trying to get better.

The trying was always as important (maybe more important) than the result.  Dad wanted us to always be improving, so in his way, he was asking us to welcome the mistakes that led to better performance.

It’s clear that mistakes will happen.  They come with the territory if we’re pushing our limits and getting better.

Embracing our mistakes is much better than fearing them.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Nathan Shively

Getting on the Next Pole

I sat in front of a pole vault coach on a recent plane ride. Overhearing his discussions brought back memories of my vaulting in high school.

I had no idea I’d become a pole vaulter when I went to the first track practice in my sophomore year.  The coach told us to go run a green (running around all the grass in the school, maybe a mile) as a warm-up.  I didn’t know anyone on the team as I started my warm-up run.  Suddenly, a group of guys ran up behind me and asked what my event was.  I said that I didn’t know, but I was a pretty fast runner so I figured I’d do one of the running events.  Looking back now, I really had no idea.

Immediately their response was, “You should be a pole vaulter.  It’s the best event out here!”

My response, “I’ve never vaulted before,” was met with an even quicker response of, “No problem, we can teach you…it’s easier than it looks.”

So, by the time we got back from running the green, I was a vaulter.  When the coach called my name and asked what event I was trying out for, I said, “Pole vault,” like it was my plan all along.

Fast forward a year or so.  I was stuck at 11 feet for the longest time.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t clear 11’ 6”.  We were blessed to have a pole vault coach, and he recommended I move to a pole that was a foot longer and rated for a bit heavier vaulter than my actual weight.

Moving up to the next pole is quite an adjustment.  It feels completely different.  Everything is off from what you’re used to.  The run-up needs to be adjusted to accommodate the additional height of the pole.  Plus, you have no idea how the pole will respond on your first jump.  In a worst-case scenario, your step may be off, the plant goes poorly, the launch is compromised, and the pole might spit you back, instead of taking you into the air.  For a high school kid, that’s a lot to consider.

In practice, I never actually took any jumps with the new pole.  I merely worked on adjusting my run-up to get the plant right.  As our next meet, against Warren High School, approached we decided to bring both my old pole and the new, longer and stiffer pole.  I remember the bus ride to Warren, wondering if I’d have the nerve to jump with the new pole in competition.

Warren had the “new” rubberized track and runways (standard nowadays).  The rubber runways added bounce and speed to my approach.  This was the perfect time for me to get on the new pole.

My coach’s advice was to block out any negative thoughts (always good advice, by the way), focus on a smooth approach, and nail the plant.  He said that if I relied on my technique, the rest would take care of itself, and I’d have no problem making my first jump.

My warmups were over and I still hadn’t actually vaulted with the new pole.  The plan was for me to take my first attempt on the new pole, and if it didn’t go well, then use the old standby pole to clear a height.

My opening height was usually 10 feet, just to establish an opening.  We decided to pass to 11 feet since our competition was good and we might need to win with fewer attempts.  Pole vault competitions are won by the vaulter who goes the highest with the fewest number of total attempts on the day.

I passed at 10, and then 10′ 6″.  Other vaulters cleared their opening heights.  My tension mounted as 11 feet came up.  He gave me the sign to pass that height as well!  So, I did.

Finally, at 11’6″ I took my attempt.  My heart pounded in my ears.  I didn’t hear anything else, except for my deep breath as I readied for takeoff.  My run up felt great.  I focused on hitting my plant perfectly and blocked everything else out.

The plant was perfect and I felt a sensation I’d never felt when vaulting. There was a noticeable pause in the takeoff and then a sudden lunge straight skyward.

As I twisted at the top of my vault I saw the crossbar whiz by and still I was climbing.  I had skied over the crossbar by at least two feet!  Everything slowed down and I reveled in amazement that I was higher than I’d ever been before.  I caught myself celebrating in my mind before realizing that I needed to let go of the pole and prepare for my landing.

I fell backward toward the pads in slow motion.  All I saw was that crossbar sitting there, motionless, as I cleared my opening height with a pole I’d never used before that day.

The cheers from my fellow vaulters (my team and the Warren vaulters) and my coach were deafening. The height I cleared wasn’t high (even by 1983 standards).  But, everyone knew that I’d just catapulted (literally) to the next level in my vaulting career.

“You flew that vault!  You could have easily cleared 12’6″ or even 13′!” my coach yelled as he patted me on both shoulders.

We decided to pass at the next two heights and come back in again at 12’6″.  Another height I’d never cleared in my life.

On only my second vault of the day and my second vault on the new pole, I easily cleared 12’6″.  My new personal record.

I don’t remember what place I finished that day.  I think we swept the top three spots in the vault and collected all the points from that event for our team.

It didn’t matter to me at the time.  Overcoming my fears, leaping to a new level, delivering for my team, and creating a new launch pad for future improvement was more important to me than my place in that day’s standings.

We are being formed throughout our lives, whether we realize it or not.  We face opportunities for failure every day.  Opportunities to let fear win, for status quo to take the day.

Overcoming the mental terrorism that only we can inflict on ourselves is the key to finding that new level.  The new levels are there, waiting for us to arrive.

Once we arrive, we can choose to stay or leap to the next level.

It’s (Just) an Experiment

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Failure has a strange power.  It can provide the most effective lessons in life.  And yet it’s also a source of fear, anxiety, stress, and a reason many choose not to try.

How is it that some people can launch new ideas, new ventures, new strategies, new hobbies, and new friendships without fear of failure?

I think they’ve realized it’s all an experiment.

Experiments are there for us to test a hypothesis.  See what works and what doesn’t.  See what’s provable.  Experiments are ways for us to demonstrate, first to ourselves, that this new idea can actually work.

What if it doesn’t work.  What if it fails?

That’s just it.  Experiments are, by their very nature, free from failure.  The experiment that “fails” merely proves or disproves an idea.  The experiment itself is a success either way.

The continuous journey to explore and experiment leads to the opposite of failure.  The outcome of each experiment is merely another observation in a long series of experiments.

When a person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem are wrapped around the execution of something new, the experiment’s natural flow can be compromised.  The experiment can’t function properly since the “owner” is working so hard to tilt the results away from his definition of failure.

The true experimenter gets to explore without fear of failure.

In fact, the failures pave the way to new successes.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–SpaceX

 

 

Anyone But Me

  • unsplash-benjamin-child“Who wants to start?”
  • “Any volunteers?”
  • “We need to think outside the box.  Do you have any ideas we can pursue?”
  • “Who’s gonna drive innovation for our company?”
  • “Did you see what they just did?  Who’s heading up our response?”
  • “I’m sure glad he’s running with that project.  I wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing!”
  • “Who’s next?”
  • “You’re kidding me!  She’s leading our brainstorming session?”
  • “I sure hope they figure this thing out.  We need answers and we need them fast!”
  • “I can’t believe we’re doing this.  Who came up with this idea?”
  • “They’re idiots to think this will matter.”

It’s easy to hide.  Easy to complain.  Easy to snipe from a distance.

It’s easiest to let someone else.

The hard thing is stepping up.

Volunteering.

Risking failure.

Taking charge.

Risking embarrassment.

Choosing to lead.

Risking success.

Turning “anyone but me” into “why not me” is the first step…and the hardest one of all.

 

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–Benjamin Child

Solving Interesting Problems and Finding Failure Along the Way

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There I was, listening to a Tim Ferris podcast, featuring Seth Godin (a great combination, by the way).

Seth said a lot.  When it came to our education system, he said it’s geared toward making compliant workers to serve the industrial complex.  I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

He said our education system should instead focus on two things:

  1. Teaching our children how to solve interesting problems (where the answers can’t be Googled),

and,

  1. Teaching our children how to lead.

As I listened, I completely agreed.

And then, only one day later, I was presented with an interesting problem.

Kip was telling me about a problem he likes to ask his programming candidates.  He gave me the problem with a look that said, “Surely you’ll be interested in this problem, and you’ll be able to figure it out.”

Wrongo!

As he explained the problem, my mind wasn’t looking for a solution.  Instead, I started wondering why I’d spend time on this problem, could I Google it (you can), how long would I have to struggle with it before he’d give me the answer, and what would an HR person say about asking this particular question (ever focused on compliance).

Meanwhile, he stood there expecting me to attack the problem, to ask follow-up questions, to start searching for a solution.  I gave him nothing.

Disappointed, he realized I wasn’t working the problem.  He gave me a hint, trying to get me to engage.  No dice.  I wasn’t tackling the problem.  I wasn’t even curious.  I waited for the answer.  In fact, I noticed I was thinking about something else (probably having to do with where we’d be eating lunch).  I hadn’t even tried.

Here’s the problem (it’s called the three light bulb question):

A windowless room has 3 light bulbs. You are outside the room with 3 switches, each controlling one of the lightbulbs. If you can only enter the room one time, how can you determine which switch controls which light bulb?

An interesting problem.  One I had chosen to not solve.

A problem that a younger version of myself would have loved.  It requires logic, imagination, a willingness to fail, and enough confidence to know, really know, that I can find the solution.

Here’s a small hint.  You’ll need to use all of your senses to find the answer.

For me, the question that’s more interesting than the light bulb problem is why I chose (almost automatically) to give up before trying to solve it.

I can tell myself it’s because I’m not a programming candidate, or that I don’t have to prove myself by solving the puzzle.  But, these aren’t the reasons.

Could be a lack of confidence.  Somewhere, deep in my subconscious (or maybe right on the surface), I didn’t know that I could solve the problem.  Queue the white flag.

That’s not the root cause.  In that same subconscious place, my mind saw an opportunity to fail.

Failure is not an option.

Failure is embarrassing.

Failure exposes our weaknesses.

How could it be that the younger version of myself would have tackled this problem with gusto, but the more experienced version sees an opportunity for failure and runs the other way?

I’ve purposely faced failure countless times in my life.  I remember being the guy who “poked the bear.”  I loved the unsolvable problem.  My job often involved turning around “unsolvable” situations.  Failure lurked around every corner, but it seemed normal to me.

There must be something else happening.

The narrative.  That’s the message we tell ourselves (and others) about our core beliefs.  It describes what makes us tick, our mission, why we do all the crazy things we choose to do.  It doesn’t matter if the narrative is always true.  It’s our narrative, and it drives the way we perceive our place in the world.

Years of status meetings, monthly reports, strategy reviews, and all the rest taught me to avoid failure.  Don’t miss the goal.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Make sure you have buy-in from everyone before launching that new idea.  Don’t take any unnecessary risks.  Don’t go out on a limb…you might fall.  We have shareholders who expect a return.

Without realizing it, I allowed my narrative to morph.  Failure avoidance found its way in.

What’s the easiest way to avoid failure?

Don’t take up the challenge.  Avoid the risks.  Don’t poke that bear.  Let someone else try.  Say “No.”

But, failures teach us the most valuable lessons in life.  The quickest way to stop learning is to avoid failures.

The truth is, avoiding failure is the biggest failure of all.

Something I’ll remember the next time I’m faced with an interesting problem, or an opportunity to fail (which are often the same things).

Want the answer to the three light bulb question?

Here’s one more hint.  Your sense of touch will come into play.

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured it out.  If not, here it is:

Turn on two switches (call them A and B) on and leave them on for a few minutes.  Then turn one of them off (switch B) and enter the room.

I’ll let you figure out the rest.

Note to Self

Maybe it’s all the close calls, existential threats, newly-invented liabilities, newly-minted regulations, new competitors, old competitors, angry customers, happy customers, former customers, new customers, potential opportunities, new ideas, new methods, better mouse traps, and everything else that comes our way in business (no matter the size).

Maybe it’s the fight-or-flight instinct that gets honed to a fine edge through years of experience.  Knowing when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em…but always allowing room for doubt.  Knowing when the silent customer is more important than the loudest one.  Knowing that the employee you don’t see is just as important as the one you do see.  Knowing we always have a competitor, whether we realize it or not.

Maybe it’s that standard defensive posture that every business assumes at times, even when it knows that only a strong offense will win the day.  Understanding that this isn’t a game we get to win every day.

Maybe it’s just fear of failure, or more likely, fear of success.

Whatever it is that stops me from getting the most enjoyment from this business…now is the time to let it go.

Life is way too short to let the small stuff get in the way.

Here’s my promise to myself:

  • I will go on offense, every day
  • I will acknowledge my fears, but only if it helps create a stronger offense
  • I will focus on the next step forward, and let the past remain there
  • I will create opportunities for those around me
  • I will love and serve
  • I will let go
  • I will enjoy each day as the gift that it is.

I will do these things as a promise to myself, knowing that I’m not the One who is in control.

Failures have excuses…Successes have stories

unsplash_Samuel_Clara

The excuse:  “We were in trouble right from the start.  We started in the dark and two of our headlamps wouldn’t work.  It started raining as we approached the halfway mark.  The mud really slowed us down.  Then, Jeremy slipped and fell and muddied up all his gear.  We knew we couldn’t make it to the summit and back before sunset, so we decided to turn back.”

The story: “That hike was epic!  We started in the dark.  We had to share John’s headlamp because ours stopped working for some reason.  When the sun finally came up, it started raining.  Hard.  The mud made for slow going.  When Jeremy fell in that massive mud puddle, we just cracked up, wondering what else this hike would throw at us.  It took about ten minutes to get him cleaned up.  Once the storm passed, we had to double-time it to make it to the summit before dark.  We got there with plenty of time to spare.  It was awesome!”

The excuse:  “There was no way we could have made the goal.  The economy turned sour on us in the second quarter.  Some bozo from IT botched the server install, and it took nearly two months to get everything configured properly.  That didn’t leave enough time for the developers to deliver on schedule.  All in all, it’s amazing we’re still in business.”

The story:  “Can you believe it?  We were pulling all-nighters for weeks because some bozo from IT botched our server install.  But, we made the release date.  Customers loved it, and we hit our sales target.  Nobody thought that could happen in this economy.”

Have you ever noticed that failures have excuses, and successes have stories?

The unfortunate truth is that some of us start making excuses long before the failure is complete.  We run into a hurdle, lose our belief in the goal, or simply lose hope that we can achieve success.

So, we get busy preparing excuses.

Our failure must be justified.  First to ourselves, and then to everyone else.  It’s even better if we can find allies to help us create better excuses.  Excuse making often replaces the work that just might deliver success.

Are successes perfect?  Far from it.

Success rarely comes without adversity.  Success usually requires new tactics, mid-course corrections, and tons of hard work.  Overcoming the odds, leaping over the hurdles, finding creative solutions…these give power to the stories we tell about our success.

Imagine a world where adversity strengthens our success stories, rather than bolstering the excuses we make for our failures.

“If it is important to you, you will find a way.  If not, you will find an excuse.”  -Author Unknown

p/c: Unsplash.com, Samuel Clara