Monday, July 27, 2009

Practice makes permanent

This blog is the second and concluding entry on why we must fail (you can find the first entry here.) Before I get into how to fail successfully I wanted to share a video that Jeff Bezos, CEO of did as a means of introducing himself and his company to the employees of Zappos, which his company plans on acquiring. He is explaining the culture at and in that explanation he has interesting things to say about failure.

What is interesting to me about this video is that Jeff seems to wear the failure as a badge of honor, or a medal. He talks about it with pride. Why? Well, short of being able to ask Jeff himself, I think it is safe to say that he sees those failures as having incredible value to Amazon and a key factor in making Amazon the company it is today.

As I typed in the last sentence in the previous paragraph the voice of my internal skeptic/cynic was booming loud and clear. “Easy to say when you’re sitting on top of a successful company.” “Of course CEO’s like to talk about their valuable failures but when it was happening they weren’t so hippy-dippy about it.” I bring this up not to make myself appear crazy, but to point out something we all must come to grips with about failure. It’s not a fun experience and people do not usually applaud us when we do it.

So, let’s review:

Failure is a crucial ingredient to success.
Failure is not fun.
Failure causes people to not like you (including your boss).

Wow. If in order to be successful I have to fail then why try? I would answer that by saying that not trying is its own form of failure. So how do we fail without turning our lives into a country western song about losing everything?

Practice. At some point in our lives most of us have performed in some way, either in sports, performing arts, or academics. The purpose of practice is to find the bumps of failure and smooth them out. We are often able to correct many of the failures through repition. Yet practice also serves another valuable function, we learn to manage the failures we cannot correct in such a way that we can contain them so that they have a minimal impact. I call this “failure under the radar.”

When we “fail under the radar” we are simply failing in way that does not make itself apparent to the observer. We may be very aware of it. Yet the observer is not.. How do we translate this skill from the practice of preparing for a performance to work? By breaking it down.

Think of something that you want to do but wont because of fear of failure. It can be work related or personal. What are the opportunities for failure(they can be new and novel parts of the task or something you’ve tried before and failed at)? Now, is there any way to construct a pathway to completing that objective that would allow you to approach each of the perceived opportunities for failure individually? Is there a way that you can approach the objective that will allow you to keep failure under the radar?

I will illustrate with an example from my own life:

I want to go to graduate school and get my doctorate. My undergraduate transcript is spotty. I made some bad grades and some good grades. I do not have the best track record when it comes to school, yet, I believe I can do it. So, what are my choices? I can apply for grad school, if I get accepted then I quit my job and dive in and sink or swim. This is the “all in” option. If I fail then I will have interrupted my career and spent a lot of money on something that I was unable to complete. Now, if I step back and ask what my opportunities for failure are I come up with the following:
A. I will not be able to “hack it” in graduate level classes.
B. I am not making the right choice for my field of study.
I could go on, but for the sake of this entry I’ll stop with these two. Now I look at each one and explore the possibility of examining each of those individually.
Item A: I can take graduate courses that I can apply towards a degree without being accepted into a program. This will give me the chance to see if I can “hack it” or not.
Item B: I can take said courses in the field that I think am interested in.

I can do both of these without leaving my current job and with minimal investment (when compared to the cost of an entire graduate degree program). I am sure that I will struggle and fail in many ways as I attempt this, but the failures can be contained and learned from before they grow into something monumental.

Think about what is holding you back as not one thing, but a bag holding many things. Unpack the bag and examine each new and novel part as well as opportunities for failure based on past experiences. How much of what is holding you back can be approached individually? Take those items and make a plan. You may fail and you may succeed. Remember the failure is a learning opportunity. See it as being one step closer to getting it right and try again. Once you succeed you will find that your perception of what is possible expands exponentially. Once you learn to view failure not as the end but as the pathway you will find your paralyzing fear gives way to a healthy fear which motivates you through the failure.

And finally if you do fail in a huge way, apologize. (My blog entry on apologies).


  1. Thanks for bringing failure up as a topic of discussion. Bezos is a great example of the success that failure brings. And, I'm curious about how we even define "failure". It is truly in the eyes of the beholder -- right? I wear my failures as a badge of honor as well as I have learned more from my failures than my successes. Love your writing style, Guy!

  2. I got a new job about 1 week and three days ago. At this point I am required to add new products to my employer’s website as well as to Amazon. This requires speed. I am a fast typist but since this is more technical than writing from the top of your head, my speed was slow and not up to their expectations.

    I was given a deadline and I failed to meet it. Twice. My employer was very frustrated and I was upset. She asked me what I would like to do and how she could help me meet my goal.

    I wanted to quit. But, I swallowed my pride and apologized. Then I said that everyone has a different learning curve and perhaps I need a little more time to get used to what I am doing. She immediately became less agitated and agreed to give me more time.

    Today I met my deadline.

    Thanks to your blogs, I kept a job that I like very much and by apologizing, I kept my employer from pressuring me to resign or fire me.

    Keep it up! This is definitely very helpful.

  3. Kathi,

    Thank you for the kind words. I enjoy reading your blog as well.

  4. Saleema
    I'm glad to hear that things worked out for you at your job and I'm glad you are finding my blog useful. Keep me posted on how things are going.