Is The Culture of Failure Failing Us?

You know that Jordan commercial? That one <--

It's a great commercial. Goosebumps.

It's also total N-O-N-S-E-N-S-E. Jordan succeeded because he was a cold, calculating killer. He didn't learn from the failure. It's simply statistics at work. Sometimes the round ball doesn't go in the round hole. Even for the man who defied gravity.

Fail fast!

A product of the first dot .com bust? When failure was all around us and we crafted this narrative to feel better about all the poor decisions made, gurus feted, money invested and lives turned upside down? 

Fail often!
With vigor!! A rallying cry!!!

More than that … a fact, according to a now-successful entrepreneur (who I think was a recovering drug addict) in a commercial I’ve seen lately: "It takes failing to learn how to succeed."

Does it? Necessarily? Because I think that's what people are starting to believe. That success only comes from failure.

What if success has nothing to do failure? What if success has nothing to do any of the factors we often attribute it to, namely hard work or luck. What if success has everything to do with making calculating decisions that put you in the best position to succeed? Or what if some people are just more apt to succeed than others?

I don’t think we’re ready to have that conversation because that would burst a lot of bubbles.

Hard work is easy to quantify in hours, push-ups, page-count. Anyone can work hard.
Luck takes no effort, it either happens or not.

And admitting some people are just more wired to succeed than others goes against the very fabric of our participation trophy culture. It would hurt too many feelings.

I recently read an article by a guy named Stephan Marche in which he describes the tyranny of feelings: "The trashing out of feelings is the replacement of righteousness. Rather than battles over laws or policy, it's about tone, the imprecision of language, the politics of the feels. It isn't just narcissism, this confusion of feelings with reality; it's worse. Feelings become the theater of conflict exactly when real hope for real change falters."

We’re so focused on feelings (not hurting them; honoring them all as equal and valid) that we aren’t willing to have conversations about facts (“laws or policy” in Marche’s case).

It’s gotten to the point where our schools teach our kids there are no moral facts. This New York Times OpEd piece blew me away. I had no idea we’re teaching our kids to water down their point-of-view. I had no idea we’re teaching our kids it’s an opinion that it’s wrong to hate someone because they’re gay. Meanwhile any remotely intelligent person knows it should be a fact – it's wrong to hate someone because they're gay. Pretty simple. Fact.

But the mentality that there’s no right or wrong means we can’t tell someone their idea is dumb, or doomed to fail. Rather we let them do it and then pat them on the back for having tried. Because that’s the kind thing to do. So we live in a world that confuses motion with progress. That thinks effort - while admittedly admirable - is the same as success.

The best managers in sports right now are using advanced metrics and new bio-sciences to make the most informed decisions on strategy and player-management. And they're winning. They don't believe in luck or chance or momentum. Because empirically those things don't exist. Yet the sports world bemoans the firing of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a holdout who turns his nose up at new evidence. He's lauded for his dedication, and getting the most out of players, and his winning %. I’ve got news for you, in pro sports, anything other than a trophy is a fail. And the last time the Bulls won a trophy a guy named Phil and the aforementioned Jordan were at the helm. So why the Thibodeau apologists? Because to admit he failed is to admit hard work alone isn’t enough to succeed.

To me it feels like the easy way out. I worked my ass off but luck didn't break my way. I'll get it next time. Or in Thibodeau’s case, he got the most out of that team but the injuries caught up to them.

But where in that equation is accountability? Where is the I had a terrible idea or I executed a pretty good idea in a terrible way? Where's the room for thoughtfulness and purposefulness?

I suppose failure can be a path to success. I've learned from failing, but I never cherished it; or expected anyone to celebrate me for it. 

I just think thoughtfulness is a more effective and emotionally-fulfilling way to make decisions that are likely to result in success. And in order to make thoughtful decisions you have to be willing to say no to bad ones, without bruised egos and hurt feelings. And you have to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth, rather than tell you what you want to hear.

I'm at the playground with my young boys. The 8 year old is going to make a leap from one jungle gym to another. I'm certain he won't make it. He asks me what to do. I don't tell him to go for it, nor do I tell him not to. I simply tell him it's his choice, but if he falls - and I'm very clear that I think there's a good chance he will because he's not yet as big or strong as the older kids doing it - it's going to hurt like hell. It's not the sugarcoating kids are used to these days. I tell him it's his choice, and he should proceed based on what he thinks and how much he values my honest opinion. It's that simple. What he does next is up to him.