Friday, March 26, 2010

Succeed In Learning From Failure

In the early 1920s a young artist and animator who lived in Kansas City set out to form his own company, which would specialize in producing cartoons. He hired his first employee and secured a deal with a local theater owner to air the cartoons, which were called "Newman Laugh-O-Grams." The cartoons became popular in the local area, and soon the budding entrepreneur signed a stable of animators to help his studio, also called Laugh-O-Gram, to increase production. Unfortunately, the tiny enterprise became top-heavy with salaries and began to lose money. The fledgling tycoon had to shut down the business and declare bankruptcy. This man went on to become one of the most successful and revered business leaders in American history, but he never forgot the pain of his initial setback, or what he learned. In later years, as he looked back on the experience, he said, "It is important to have one good hard failure when you are young." His name was Walt Disney.

When I was a young man in my early thirties, I quit the practice of law to go into business for myself. I formed an S Corporation, opened a fast-food franchise, and had to rapidly educate myself as to the ins-and-outs of Small Business 101. It was an incredible learning experience for me and, long hours aside, I loved the freedom of being my own boss. But despite my best efforts, I could not generate sufficient revenue to cover my costs. I stayed in business for about six months and then, reluctantly, was forced to close up shop. I had a wife and small child who were dependent on me. I had lost all our savings and was bankrupt. I was unemployed for seven months. There was no sugarcoating it: I had failed miserably, in a way that had never happened to me before. Nevertheless, this incredibly difficult passage from almost twenty years ago shaped who I am in ways that still resonate to this day. In its way, it was a much more significant and life-changing event for me than any of my triumphs have ever been. Painful though it was, like Walt Disney, I succeeded in learning from failure.

University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt writes in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, "People need adversity, setbacks and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength and fulfillment. Suffering is not always all bad for all people. There is usually some good mixed in with the bad, and those who find it have found something precious: a key to moral and spiritual development." In his book The Pursuit of Perfect, Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar argues that individuals who risk failure actually tend to be happier than those who are averse to challenge and change. Ben-Shahar says, "Successful people are necessarily people who have failed many times, and therefore are 'better' at failing than others. When we practice failure, we realize the pain associated with fear of failure is often greater than the pain associated with actual failures."

The roster of well-known people who have achieved at a high level in their lives but who have also learned from failure along the way is endless. Former President Bill Clinton says, "When I was defeated for reelection as governor in 1980, there didn't seem to be much future for me in politics. I was probably the youngest ex-governor in American history. But if I hadn't been defeated, I probably never would have become president. It was a near-death experience, but it forced me to be more sensitive and to understand that if people think you've stopped listening, you're sunk." Author J.K. Rowling, who penned the mega-best-selling Harry Potter series of books, was at one time alone, unemployed, and "as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless." But for Rowling, "Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began directing all of my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me."

Indeed, these days, many companies actually look to actively recruit workers who have experienced and overcome adversity in their personal or professional life. Meridee Moore is the founder of Watershed Asset Management, a $2 billion hedge fund in San Francisco. When asked in a recent interview about how she hires, Moore responded, "… if the person has had a rough patch in the past, that's usually good… if you've ever had a setback and come back from it, I think it helps you make better decisions. There's nothing better for sharpening your ability to predict outcomes than living through some period where things went wrong. You've learned that no matter how smart you are and how hard you work, you have to anticipate things that can go against you."

The Great Recession has been a huge challenge for all of us. Many of us have experienced defeats and even real suffering, both in our jobs and on the home front. But there can be redemption. The phoenix can rise again from the ashes. For me, out of my spectacular failure, I learned many things. I learned to take new challenges seriously, and never to assume that skills and abilities that have pulled me through in the past will necessarily pull me through the next time. I learned to worry only about those things that I can control, and the main thing I control on a daily basis is my attitude. I get to choose how I want to be. I learned to appreciate my many blessings, especially family and friends. And I learned a whole lot about humility.

Professor Ben-Shahar of Harvard summarizes the idea well, "The ones who will emerge stronger from [adversity]- the resilient ones- are those who learn to find the opportunity in every setback." In short, they are the people who succeed in learning from failure.

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