A case for a second chance

November 23, 2018

This is what Roger Martin, in his article in Harvard Business Review, (May 2, 2014) had to say about failure:

“Most people agree that the two strongest human urges are survival and procreation, but there is very little consensus on the next most powerful. I believe it’s the need to succeed. Humans hate to fail—hate it more than almost anything else.

But what about all the people in the world who apparently have no drive for success, for instance, kids who choose to be drug dealers rather than get an education and ‘succeed’? I see a different explanation for such behaviour. If you hate failure, you have a wonderful way of ensuring that you don’t experience it: Play the game you know you can win.

Think about it. On one hand, you can tackle a difficult challenge and face the prospect of failing. On the other, you can strive for a manageable goal and pretty much guarantee that you’ll achieve it. I would argue that most people systematically choose the second course of action.

So it’s not that kids who drop out of high school and become drug dealers lack a desire to succeed. Quite the contrary. Their desire is so great, in fact, that they risk their lives and liberty to fulfil it. But they take care to do something they can succeed at, not something for which they feel set up to fail, namely, the path followed by more- privileged kids.”

It does not matter whether you agree with Roger Martin’s opinion about school kids and why they become drug dealers. Many, perhaps, would disagree. But that is not the point.

The interesting point here is that, in Martin’s opinion, the third strongest human urge, after survival and procreation, is the urge to succeed.

The question that I invite you to consider is: in the urge to succeed, are you setting up small games; games you know you can win?

When we play small games, we presume we are setting ourselves up to win. What we are blind about is the fact that, perhaps, we could have achieved a lot more–had we played bigger. In that case, even if we did not achieve the desired result, at least, in a certain sense, we would have expanded our capacity to play big.

I invite you to transform your relationship with failure.

For that, first, we will need to have a new shared understanding of what failure is.

so, what is failure?

Failure is an assessment; it is a conversation that many continue to indulge in. I have seen many people make past failure an excuse for inaction today; for not playing boldly enough today.

The world we live in, we give way too much importance to failure. However, there is a key distinction between ‘I am a failure’ and ‘this attempt failed’.

This is where the big difference lies!

Your attempts can fail. However, ‘I am a failure’ is merely an assessment you make; something that becomes the context of future action, or often, inaction.

Distinguish between ‘what is so’ and ‘what I make of what is so’; and between ‘who I am’ and ‘what I do’.

‘What is so’ is a fact. For example, ‘I did not achieve my revenue target for this year’. This is a fact. Indisputable. That my target was ‘X’, and I achieved ‘X less 10%’, for example, is a fact.

However, ‘what I make of what is so’ is my interpretation of the fact.

Each one of us is continually making assessments all the time. When an event happens, as human beings, we very quickly make up assessments. So, if a certain desired outcome was not achieved, many people end up making a story that
‘they failed’.

Extending from the above example: ‘I failed’ is a fact–my target was ‘X’ and I achieved ‘X less 10%’. This is what I call ‘what is so’.

However, ‘I am failure’ is an assessment. It is my interpretation. It is ‘what I make of what is so’.

Can you see the subtle difference here? Subtle difference, yet a context-
changing one!

‘I failed’: is a fact

‘I am a failure’: is my assessment, my interpretation.

You never are a failure—remember—‘failure is only an assessment! Yet, if you choose the assessment, ‘I am a failure’—then that is your choice!

Yes, attempts can fail—and that is fine. The problem happens when you stop making attempts due to failure.

The choice is between inaction and failure. For me, it is a no-brainer; I would much rather choose failure.

The more you are in inaction, the more you are in the conversation of wanting to avoid failure.

A failed attempt is, often, a reminder of something that is missing. Some action, some practice, some conversation, or some coordination. A failed attempt allows you to distinguish what is missing and bring that forth.

The key here is for individuals to give themselves the permission to fail. If you do not give yourself the permission to fail, you will continue to set up small games–those that are winnable; and yet you lose!

As a leader or a manager, what is important is that you also create room for failure for your team members. When you do so, you create room for new learning, for new practice, for expansion, and for growth.

It opens up a space of trust between the leader and the co-worker, it breaks barriers, and the co-worker starts to give himself fully to the job, because he knows you have his back covered.

Virat Kohli, on becoming the captain of the Indian cricket team, in his tribute to M S Dhoni stated, “He (Dhoni) will always be the person who guided me initially and gave me opportunities. He gave me ample time and space to grow as a cricketer, saved me from getting dropped from the team many a times.”

Virat Kohli has turned out to be quite a cricketer, and had he not been allowed space for failure, history would have been written differently.