I was going through some old papers today, as my office was looking more and more like Bourbon Street the day after. I decided to give it the old 5S (a Lean Manufacturing reference, the details of which I will spare you) and took everything out. Then every item had to earn its way back in. Try to imagine going through hundreds of scraps of papers -- notes from meetings with clients I no longer worked with, story ideas, fully written stories (in cursive, after all, only barbarians and social deviants write in print) and the occasional obscene doodle. In the course of this Herculean endeavor (the job really did have an Augean Stables look, feel and smell about it), I happened across a quote from David Geffen, “When we don’t provide people the opportunity to fail, we don’t provide them much of an opportunity to succeed either.”
This got me thinking, admittedly a dangerous and terrible state; how many of us have simply given up on an entrepreneurial enterprise because the first attempt failed? Now, I am not going to lecture you on the dangers of quitting. After all, I divorced my ex-wife (rest her soul) when my daughter was around 18 months old; but in my defense we might observe how that necessitated I steadfastly share custody with a shrew of a woman (rest her soul) for years thereafter. So there's that.
The dangers of quitting.
No, it was to our daughter, years later, that I found myself addressing the topic of quitting, at the dramatically splenetic behest of former wife (rest her soul). It seemed that my daughter (parental ownership having shifted entirely to me due to the child's infraction, real or imagined) had joined cheerleading (at six years old? Why?), then decided she didn’t like it. So she quit. My ex-wife (rest her soul) was unhappy with what she saw as a pattern of behavior: my daughter had quit other activities as well, apparently.
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I listened intently and finally told my daughter, “Honey, you come from a long line of quitters. I joined Little League and quit after the first practice (an older kid had made fun of my glove). I joined football (not knowing that the team started pre-conditioning at 5 a.m. two weeks before school officially started, followed by practices after school, as well. To hell with concussions, the real danger in high school football is teaching kids that this kind of behavior is normal.) and quit before the first day. I was a founding member of my high school’s fencing team but quit before the first meeting. Soccer, lacrosse, the chess club? Quit, quit and, well, we didn’t have one, but if we had, I’d have enthusiastically joined and just as enthusiastically quit.” My ex-wife (rest her soul) said, “That’s not what I had in mind,” and stormed off in the kind of huff that I once inexplicably found charming.
The joys of trying.
The point is, my daughter tried. My ex-wife (rest her soul) and I could have told her we didn’t think she was ready for cheerleading, but we let her try it, and she quit. In that same spirit of exploration, our daughter went on to try softball and basketball at which she excelled. (Parental ownership now being shared again due to her success.)
I understand that I am using the words “quit” and “fail” interchangeably, but realistically how often do we quit an enterprise because we are successful at it? “Wow, things are going great I better quit!” said nobody, ever.
Whether we are entrepreneurs or faceless cogs in corporate hell, we have to embrace not only our own failures but also those of others. To fail is forgivable: To fail and learn nothing from it is not. Failure lies at the heart of learning, and learning lies at the heart of success. Corporate speak for failure is now "teachable moment," a term so passive-aggressive that it makes me want to use the back of my hand as a teachability instrument. But failures are an opportunity to coach people on how they might succeed on their next attempt.
The wages of failure.
There's a (probably apocryphal) tale of an executive who decided to change the formula for Coca Cola. It was a colossal mistake: Dimly lit bulbs across the country hoarded original formula Coke in their survivalist bunkers, sales of the new stuff plummeted and the executive was fired. The executive fell into a kind of funk studying, nigh obsessing, on the mistake he had made. He studied every nuance of what led him down this path of failure until he became an expert in knowing why he made this mistake.
He went on the speaking circuit explaining the mistake-making process and became a notable success. One day, a large soft drink company offered him an executive position; it was Coca Cola. The board was so impressed with his dogged pursuit to find out why he failed that they reasoned he was the sort of man who might make mistakes but would move Heaven and Earth to learn from them.
The wisdom of others.
Unless we make mistakes (rest her soul), we never gain that visceral understanding of the depth and breadth of lesson the mistake holds. I can tell you not to touch a hot stove, but until you’ve done it you really only have an approximation of why you shouldn't. After, you know. In life, I can tell you that it is a mistake to open a restaurant next door to a fat rendering plant, and you probably can see the logic in that, but you won’t really understand the depth of consequence of that bad decision until you make it yourself.
Of course it’s wise to listen to experts in matters of great risk or irrevocable consequence, but I've found that fear of failure drives too many of us in our day-to-day decisions. And it shouldn't. I routinely approach women who are light-years out of my league and have predictably little success (it may have something to do with some of them reading my work). But I have always believed that A.) no woman is out of my league, and B.) it’s better to strike out than to never have an at-bat.
The renunciation of fear.
I hate sports analogies, having participated in so many sports, albeit briefly, but I think this one apropos. No one has ever gotten on base without stepping up to the plate and risking striking out or worse yet getting beaned with a fastball. In other words, get in there, fail; or, as the late Lou Reed would have you do, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Don’t emulate too many of the characters in his song, however, or I fear it will end with you making mistakes the lessons of which can only be learned with the professional help of a therapist, using dolls.
As long as you know why you’ve failed and understand how to prevent similar failures going forward, you can never truly regret any failure. As long as you persevere and press forward with another attempt, it isn't really a failure. Now, if you will excuse me, there is a beautiful woman out there somewhere that I need to find, ask out and be turned down by, a stricken look of nausea and repulsion upon her face.