Chapter 1: The Success-Failure FallacyOne must be God to be able to distinguish successes from failures and not make mistakes.
-- Anton Chekov
A management consultant wrote a brief bio for his thirtieth college reunion. In it, he included the usual information: work, family, achievements. By most measures, this man was unusually successful. He was the father of thriving children, head of a respected think tank, and author of a best-selling book. After reviewing his paragraph, however, the consultant realized that it read more like a resumé than an honest report to his classmates. "Why would I write such a stilted, half-true account of my life for friends who knew me when?" he asked himself.
As a lark, the consultant decided to write a longer, more candid report about what his life had actually been like. It began:Because I didn't receive a single "A" in college, I couldn't get into medical school. Instead, I worked as a lifeguard, but got fired at the end of the summer. My next job, selling advertising in the Yellow Pages, was interrupted by breaking my leg badly while skiing. This gave me three months to think about what to do with my life. Since I'd enjoyed my psychology courses in college, I thought I might try to become a school psychologist. So, I enrolled at UCLA to pick up psychology and education courses, but got kicked out of student teaching because I couldn't get along with my supervisor. Back to lifeguarding. Then I noticed that a prominent psychologist was giving a summer seminar at my alma mater, so I quit my job and enrolled. This experience was electrifying. The psychologist invited me to study with him at the University of Chicago. I was so intimidated by that most serious academic institution, however, that I put off going there for a year. Just before receiving my Ph.D. from Chicago, I was given a one-year fellowship on the Harvard Business School faculty. I left there at the end of the year with almost everyone mad at me.
The report went on like this for several paragraphs. Far from being a description of a smooth, upward trajectory, it portrayed a jagged course of life events. Failures mingled with successes, triumphs with setbacks. The consultant's full bio was a litany of opportunities seized, others blown, jobs taken, jobs lost, personal rebuffs, standing ovations, love affairs, marriage, divorce, remarriage, making Who's Who,
getting fired, starting a think tank, making money, going broke, having a heart attack, learning piano, publishing books...and on and on. His failures led to successes and successes to failures. The two were so interdependent that it wasn't always clear which was which. So it is in most lives.Tangled Line
Whose life can be located precisely on the map of success and failure? Sometimes, what seems to be a success at one point proves to be a failure at another. Premature promotions set one person up for a fall. Getting fired forces someone else to start a profitable business. A marriage made in heaven can't survive hellish periods. A rotten first marriage propels both partners into terrific second ones. Life-threatening illnesses can jolt survivors into living more fully. ("Best thing that ever happened to me!")
We like to think you either succeed or
fail. Most situations are more ambiguous, however. So are most people. He's a success, we say. She's a failure. On whose terms? At what stage of life? How can we be so sure? Winston Churchill, after all, was considered by many to be a pompous failure until he became prime minister of Great Britain during World War II.
We're too quick to call someone or something a "success" or a "failure" when the jury is still out (which is true in most cases). These two are simply not that easy to sort out, untangle, tell apart. All they are is labels we hang on complex events trying to simplify them. What we usually end up doing is oversimplifying them. When we win and when we lose can be utterly dependent on circumstances, timing, the economy, even shifts in the public mood.
Remember Edmund Muskie? When he ran for vice president in 1968, Maine's Lincolnesque senator was considered the most impressive member of either ticket. Four years later, he was the leading candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries. Then, on a snowy day in New Hampshire, Muskie choked up while protesting press attacks on his wife. Televised images of the senator from Maine tearfully addressing a rally with snowflakes clinging to his eyebrows horrified American viewers. We didn't want a crybaby in the White House! That single incident scuttled Muskie's political career. He had "failed."
Fast forward twenty-eight years. Al Gore's campaign for president was floundering. The knock on him: He was too stiff, too wooden. Gore's feelings were stored in a lockbox. He never got misty-eyed, like -- well -- like Ed Muskie!
In a different time and place, Muskie's catastrophic failure might have been considered a roaring success. If Maine's senator had been campaigning in the age of Oprah, his tearful outburst might have won him plaudits. Muskie would then have been viewed as a devoted husband and passionate candidate who could communicate soulfully with the American public.
Failure and success can be utterly dependent on such intangibles. Luck happens: good and bad. The fabulously wealthy J. Paul Getty said his success formula was "Rise early, work late, strike oil." As Getty realized, success or failure in business can have little to do with anything done by design. On a given new project everything might seem to be in place, ducks all lined up, every detail checked out. Then, some unexpected meteor lands on that project. A well-designed SUV might be launched just as soaring gas prices revive demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles. A surefire best-seller gets published right after New York Times
reporters go on strike, taking its best-seller list with them. Or things might break the other way. A chance encounter at a class reunion leads to a big contract. The unexpected failure of a competitor opens new markets for your product. If the inventor of a computer operating system called CP/M had accepted IBM's invitation to pitch his product rather than go on vacation, Bill Gates might be a small-time Seattle software merchant rather than the developer of MS-DOS (which IBM bought instead) and one of the world's richest men.
Now we all can agree that Gates did succeed, big time -- right? Well, not everyone. It took Mary Gates years to reach that conclusion. Long after Microsoft was flourishing, Mrs. Gates considered her son Bill a failure because he had dropped out of Harvard. Traditionally, that's what dropouts have been considered: failures. In the midst of an economic revolution led by college dropouts such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, however, this attitude is changing. As Mary Gates eventually conceded, leaving college -- even Harvard -- may simply reflect a shift in priorities.Says Who?
Success, failure: Who's to say? These are much more ambiguous concepts than is suggested by success seminars, management texts, or performance reviews. The terms defy definition. Each one of us has a concept of success as unique as our fingerprints. Appearances aside, it's rare for anyone to achieve every measure of success as he or she may define that word. Despite what is written in annual reports and Christmas newsletters, unqualified success and clear-cut victories are rare. Most lives include few pure successes -- or failures. Most must be qualified one way or another. That's why people who appear
successful seldom feel
successful. They know that what others perceive as their success is more of a mixed bag and, to some extent, undeserved.
Take Maria Shriver. If ever a woman would seem to have it all, it's Shriver. She's wealthy, attractive, has a movie-star husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger), four healthy children, a thriving TV career, and best-selling books on her resumé. Yet Shriver continually uses the word failure
when discussing herself. What stands out in her mind is a single setback: when the version of CBS Morning News she hosted was canceled. And her many successes? Shriver brushes them off as a result of having big hair, impressive teeth, and, especially, being John F. Kennedy's niece.
In most lives, successes and failures are as tangled as fishing line after a bad cast. Failure begets success followed by failure and success once again. When we look back on our lives, the parts that once seemed triumphant can pale in significance, while episodes that appeared trivial at the time now look crucial. Successes, we see in hindsight, made us complacent, while our setbacks pushed us.
Country singer Joe Diffie said that the best year of his life was the one in which he lost his job at a foundry, got divorced, totaled his pickup, and was audited by the IRS. With so little to lose, Diffie left Oklahoma for Nashville, where he eventually became the Country Music Association's male vocalist of the year. "If the foundry hadn't been shut down," Diffie later admitted, "I'd probably still be there today."
As Diffie discovered, failures sometimes pave the way for successes and vice versa. We do everything we can to court triumph and hold adversity at bay, then find that unavoidable setbacks blaze the trail for our significant successes. Misfortune forces us to discover new paths to achievement, which, in turn, produce more setbacks and subsequent achievements in an endless cycle.
This is true in the lives of people and businesses alike. In the 1950s, it was thought that the success of television would lead to radio's demise. Instead, radio reinvented itself as a talk-show drive-time medium and roared back stronger than ever. Far from wiping out the market for fresh produce, as was feared, frozen vegetables whetted our appetite for fresh ones in countless new varieties. Convenience foods fueled a renaissance in gourmet cooking. Fast food inspired a passion for leisurely dini...