CEO, Cue Ball; Vice Chairman, Parthenon
For Harvard Business Review‘s April issue on failure, I penned a piece on the experience of going through a failed IPO. In one context or another, you’ve likely failed, too. You may have chosen to frame it some other way (“experience,” “lessons learned,” etc.), but it was failure.
First, welcome to the club. We’ve all been there. Second, for a book we’re writing on the DNA of entrepreneurship, my co-authors Richard Harrington, Tsun-yan Hsieh, and I have developed a checklist on how to reflect on failure. So I thought I’d share:
Checkbox 1: Was This Really My True North?
Sometimes things fail. Why? Because you may not have cared enough. The fact is, highly capable people are often driven to success standards that are extrinsically measured — e.g. they provide external credentialization — but have little in common with what they truly wanted to accomplish. If you are working without meaning in a role, task, or job, your missing drive will make it harder for you to succeed. If you are conducting a post-mortem of a failure, ask yourself, Was I truly self-motivated to succeed, or was someone (or something) else driving me to succeed?
If you were following your authentic “true north” — a goal, purpose, or calling you know you were born to follow — it makes sense to evaluate how and why things went awry.
Checkbox 2: Was My Own Standard Reasonable?
Failure has much to do with internal expectations. If things don’t go your way when you’re launching a new strategy, or pitching a long-shot idea to a skeptical investor, don’t relegate yourself gloomily to a future in middle management. Your expectations no doubt differ from other people’s. Just because you enjoy French wine doesn’t mean that overnight you can read the collected Molière, just as probably no one expects an individual with only a few years business experience under her belt to land a skittish CEO client. We recommend giving yourself a post-failure pep talk similar to one you’d give a new employee: You know, that guy has been a flake since day one, but turning us down was a mistake on his part. Don’t sweat it — you’re going to nail the next one. In short, your inner voice shouldn’t berate you any more than your outer voice would address a hardworking employee.
Stretch yourself always, but never forget to calibrate your expectations. Research conducted on Olympic medal winners has found that athletes who won a bronze medal were actually happier than those who won a silver medal. It’s easy to figure out why. Silver medalists fine-tune their internal standards against the dashed possibility of winning a gold medal, whereas bronze medalists are focused on the victory of standing on the Olympic podium, and of just turning in one of the three greatest performances in their sport. Ask yourself: Have you appropriately calibrated your “failure”?
Checkbox 3: Did I Try Everything Possible to Succeed?
You probably know better than anyone whether or not you tried your hardest. This is why you’re the best person to evaluate how much effort you put into your “failed” endeavor. Did you exhaust every conceivable approach in your quest for success? Or did you deploy your time and energy resources on another project that was an almost-guaranteed triumph?
If in evaluating yourself you find you didn’t consider other ways to accomplish your goal, ask yourself why. If you were pessimistic about the outcome from the start, you could have saved yourself time by choosing the quickest course of action. As we noted earlier, optimism is an essential ingredient of luck, and a bad attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Checkbox 4: Are you being “Macromyopic” and overdramatizing the short-term impact of the mistake?
Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, has a great “law”: people tend to overemphasize the short-term effects of anything while underestimating the long-term impact. Which is another way of saying that most of us view the world through the lens of a sprint, forgetting we are actually running a marathon. I’ve written before about “Macromyopia” — overinflating and exaggerating the aches and pains of near-term mistakes while discounting what they can teach us in the future (or for that matter, whether they matter much at all in the long run). Have a reality check on the real impact of your mistake. It may not matter as much as you think.
Checkbox 5: What can I learn from my “failure” (including how do I make damn sure not to repeat this mistake again)?
Whether your recent “failure” was internally-driven, externally-driven, or a combination, use it as a learning opportunity. If you could start over, what would you do differently? How would your approach differ? Or would you simply tweak a few salient details? Be willing to take responsibility, e.g. you may have been shortsighted by devoting weeks courting a skittish investor. Admit, too, that even in the case of a flawless performance, you might not have succeeded anyway. Again, the key here is to address whatever “failure” you’ve experienced, explore it, learn from it, and never repeat it.
“Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” psychologist William James once wrote. “In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.”
We couldn’t agree more.
This article first appeared on Harvard Business Publishing on April 12, 2011.
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