Thursday, June 13, 2013

Turning Failure Into Success

When Smart People Fail: Rebuilding Yourself for Success (Penguin, 1988) by Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb contains some excellent insights about how to perceive failure not as a permanent condition but rather as a life experience from which we can learn valuable lessons; this is similar to Garret Kramer's Stillpower concept that differentiates between "life" and "life situations": Kramer explains, "Your life is a constant," while "life situations" are things that happen that you cannot control and that therefore should not change how you view your life.

Hyatt and Gottlieb assert, "Failure does not lie in the event; it lies in the judgment of the event." For instance, William L. Shirer felt devastated when he was fired by CBS; it seemed like his once-promising career had been derailed but he learned to view what happened not as a setback but rather as an opportunity to pursue other goals:

"In the final analysis it has to do with what your values are. I was never ambitious to be vice president in charge of news or the number one person in status or pay. I was not ambitious to be more than a good journalist and a good writer. My inner life was the most important thing for me. That, and the value of the work itself. The main thing is living with yourself.

In the end, getting fired from CBS was a blessing, which I did not appreciate for a long time. What it set me to doing was what I had always wanted to do, which was to write books. When you're working for a big paper or a big network and you're making a lot of money, you keep putting off the time you are going to write that big book."

Shirer spent nearly 10 years writing The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, draining his savings and persevering despite the objections of friends and colleagues who told him that no one would buy a 1200 page book about this topic. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich sold out its entire first printing on the day it was released and it became the top selling book in the history of the Book-of-the-Month-Club. Shirer transformed what looked like failure at CBS into a great success story.

In addition to refocusing one's external direction after a setback, one can also refocus one's internal perspective; as Hyatt and Gottlieb put it, "Excellence of craft is the issue, not reviews or medals." Do what you do because you are passionate about doing it, not because you are seeking money and/or praise.

Actress Barbara Babcock told Hyatt and Gottlieb about her mentality:

"For me the most important part of my career is the process, not the result. The most satisfying stage is generally the rehearsal, working on a role rather than performing it. That is one of the ways I have coped with the concept of failure. I think failure is always goal-oriented--what has happened as a result, and not the process of getting there. I measure myself against the process--did I do the scene well? Did I find something interesting about the character? Did the moment feel alive for me? These are the satisfactions that sustain me."

Hyatt and Gottlieb point out that this approach can be applied to any walk of life: "Even in sports, it's a matter of balance, of perspective. The striving for success, the fierce desire to win, have to coexist, with a larger sense of self, an acceptance of the possibility of loss, an understanding that neither winning nor losing are the real measures of ourselves."

Julius Erving endured six years of frustrating playoff setbacks before winning an NBA championship and throughout that period he stayed true to his core belief: "I've always tried to tell myself that the work itself is the thing, that win, lose or draw, the work is really what counts. As hard as it was to make myself believe that sometimes, it was the only thing I had to cling to every year--that every game, every night, I did the best I could."

Hyatt and Gottlieb note, "You cannot prevent failure because you cannot control results. But you can control process. You can learn to become involved in what you do in a different way, so that your emphasis is on the pride and pleasure you take in the work rather than on the results. In doing that, you will have changed the basis for measuring your own success and failure."

Benjamin Barber, a political science professor at Rutgers, told Hyatt and Gottlieb that the most important trait is the ability/willingness to learn and grow:

"I don't divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don't. I don't even divide the world into the extroverted and the introverted, or those who hear the inner voice or the outer voice, because we all hear some of both.

I divide the world into learners and nonlearners.

There are people who learn, who are open to what happens around them, who listen, who hear the lessons. When they do something stupid, they don't do it again. And when they do something that works a little bit, they do it even better and harder the next time.

The question to ask is not whether you are a success or a failure, but whether you are a learner or a nonlearner."

Hyatt and Gottlieb conclude, "If you refuse to feel like a victim, if you take responsibility for your life, if you understand that you can change, you begin to act differently. And once you begin to act differently, other people begin to perceive you differently, other people begin to perceive you in a powerful, not powerless, way."

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