The Failure Résumé
I came across this recently and liked it.
Let’s talk about failure by Heather Long of the Guardian.
It is a great idea to think about the positive effect of experiencing failures in life. As a kid I was captivated by the old legend of Abe Lincoln who purportedly failed in almost everything he ever tried. The myth generally goes something like this:
A list of Abraham Lincoln’s Failures:
- Lost job, 1832
- Defeated for legislature, 1832
- Failed in business, 1833
- Elected to legislature, 1834
- Sweetheart (Ann Rutledge) died, 1835
- Had nervous breakdown, 1836
- Defeated for Speaker, 1838
- Defeated for nomination for Congress, 1843
- Elected to Congress, 1846
- Lost renomination, 1848
- Rejected for Land Officer, 1849
- Defeated for Senate, 1854
- Defeated for nomination for Vice-President, 1856
- Again defeated for Senate, 1858
- Elected President, 1860
It turns out that the whole truth is richer and more complicated than that, but for me it was still a moving myth. “You mean a guy like that can become a great president?” Yep. And that realization was one of the first concepts that changed the way I saw the world.
And then there is this:
It is far more than your average Nike commercial. The idea that this adds to the somewhat simplistic message of the Abe Lincoln story is causation. The Abe Lincoln story says, “keep trying.” It’s the old, If at first you don’t succeed idea – which was never that satisfying because it doesn’t suggest you are getting anywhere by continuing to try. There is no promise of progress through failure there.
The Nike commercial’s message is quite different. Jordan cites his significant failures and then says, “…and that is why I succeed.” And that asserts a direct causal relationship. My success is not in spite of my failures; it is because of them.
A couple of short stories:
1. I once witnessed a high school soccer player miss an important shot. It was heartbreakingly close. Upper right corner from 12 meters out. It was a clutch shot that would have tied the game with less than a minute to play. He was the most talented single player on team, and when we saw him set up for it, we thought it was a sure thing. He had made many such shots and far harder ones before. But he missed, just a little high and the team lost. The next morning, he was out, first thing, with a bag of balls and his girlfriend playing keeper. He was firing shot after shot from 12 meters at the upper right corner. He must have hit 200 balls that morning.
2. When my son was an infant, my wife and I hired a babysitter for an evening. When we returned, our babysitter was visibly shaken and she immediately told us what had happened. She had stepped away from the changing table for a moment and my son had rolled off and hit the floor. She apologized earnestly and said she understood if we couldn’t hire her again, and I remember thinking, almost instantly, “No, no, no. You are the one we want from now on because that mistake doesn’t happen twice.” She was a better babysitter now that this had happened. We should have given her a raise.
What these two stories have in common is the effect of failure and how it improves performance.
What is the practical upshot of all this? In hiring and forming organizations, we can use information about people’s failures to understand what they have experienced and what they have likely learned. We can certainly better understand a person’s orientation toward learning by hearing the stories of their failures – the things that did not go well and what they did about them.
If you are looking for someone who can break out of an established structure to do something different, success in that established structure is not a good indicator. You are really looking for someone who has not done well in a previous model if you are trying to transcend it.
In schools it is the same. Any school that is looking for bright, creative, and motivated students for a forward leaning program based on a creativity and innovation should not turn its nose up at students for whom the industrial model of schooling was an uncomfortable fit. In fact, knowing what the industrial model of schooling does to creativity, poor performance in a standard school might be an indicator of creative inclination. Now that has implications.
Who are the real change-makers of today? You won’t find many of them at Yale, Harvard, or Stanford. They weren’t admitted.
Actually, I am reasonably sure you will find change makers with a variety of academic profiles, but many of them are your typical C and D, bored high school students who spend a lot time tinkering in the shop, teaching themselves how to code, and are somewhat withdrawn because poor grades come with a stigma at no extra charge.