In walked a candidate for a job that I was seeking to fill. As the interview commenced, I rolled through the standard litany of questions to gain an overall picture of the candidate’s skills. I then asked for the candidate to describe their greatest failure. They paused only briefly and stated that due to their exceptional skills, thoroughness, and superior attention to detail that they have never failed at any task that they have pursued. The irony of the candidate’s response was that in their declaration of perfection, they had demonstrated that they were much more susceptible to failure than they cared to admit.
Granted, the question that I presented to the candidate was a tricky one for an interview. The candidate desires to highlight their best qualities so that they can rise above the other candidates for the job. To reveal failure presents a risk of embarrassment and exposing the inner feelings of being less than who they desire to be. However, the question was a critical one to cut through the baloney of the pitch and reveal core traits that truly make the difference between a good employee and a great employee. The core trait that I was pursuing was a learning spirit who is able and willing to convert the garbage of failure into the gold of innovation.
The characteristic of hubris is poison to any relationship and enterprise. This trait is the excessive expression of self-confidence and pride. The person who exhibits hubris may very well demonstrate an appetite for risk, which is critical for success and achievement. They may generate a lot of energy around them because of their confidence and boldness. However, when their appetite for risk is more significant than what they can support and when mistakes and failures begin to occur, redirection, excuses, and denial dominate the response. The unwillingness to acknowledge the unacceptable truth of the situation prevents adaptation and learning. As a result, the ingredient of hubris poisons the effort and results in the ultimate defeat of the task and the person.
Failure means many things to many people. At its core, failure is falling short of a goal or commitment. Practically, a failure can result in termination, loss of a client, loss of assets, and loss of revenue. In the worst cases, failure could result in the loss of life. The consequences of failure are undesirable and can result in a downward spiral of morale. We all desire to be good at what we do, positively contributing to our enterprise and when that is not realized it causes us to fear failure and reduce our appetite for risk. However, even in the worst scenario, the fruit of failure does not have to be rotten and bitter.
Our heroes become heroes because their achievements are such that they show us what great looks like and make us believe that we too can be great. When we attempt to repeat the actions of our heroes, we quickly discover that the gap between our abilities and theirs are far more significant than expected. What is often missing in our admiration is the early part of our heroes’ story. We don’t hear about the sub-par performance that they experienced and the frustrations that they endured. Elvis Presley was so demoralized with rejection that he quit at one point to become a truck driver. Micheal Jordan failed to make his high school varsity basketball team. Dr. Seuss‘ first manuscript was rejected 28 times before being picked up by a publisher. Abraham Lincoln had many failed campaigns for public office before his successful presidential candidacy.
The definition of persistence is “obstinate continuance in the course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.” This is the ingredient in the recipe of that turned the despondent Elvis Presley into the King of Rock and Roll. It is the catalyst that transformed the rejected Micheal Jordan into His Airness. It is the factor that turned the frustrated Abraham Lincoln into The Great Emancipator. Persistence does not deny the emotions that come with failure. They inevitably arrive with a vengeance. However, we have a choice when these emotions flood in. We can choose to let failure develop into fear and doubt which erodes our confidence and innovative curiosity. We also can choose to study the result, identify our learnings, expand our understanding of the world, and discover routes to attempt our goals again. While the former choice results in defeat, the latter option energizes us. The life-long habit of making the latter decision is what we call “experience.” Experience is a set of failures well taken.
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who experienced his own set of frustrations and failures through his controversial career once stated that “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Regardless of our experience, education, talent, understanding, and perceptions are finite; therefore, all efforts involve risk and failure. If we keep the broader view of our journey in mind, not allowing the oscillations of success and failure discourage us, we can realize the positive progress that we desire; understanding that because we failed we learned, and because we applied our learnings we succeeded. The success required the previous failure to become realized. As you progress through your career and enterprise, I encourage you to view failure as an effective teacher, not an undertaker. Seek continual improvement and adopt a learning mindset in all that you do.