This past year, I wandered into a bit of a professional failure. It wasn't catastrophic or career ending. But it was a setback. And I was in the middle of it. So I thought I’d share some aspects of the experience of climbing out of the hole as a bit of free self help at my expense. You can take it or leave it…but I hope you take at least a little.
In reflection, I noticed a bit of a pattern on how I approached my failure retrospective. When I pulled apart what happened, the urge to apply a weak link framework to that failure was strong. If unfamiliar with the term, a weak link framework focuses on the weakest part of an enterprise as cause for its failure or success. Things with high degrees of physical safety requirements (aviation, space travel) have heavy weak link focus. It doesn’t matter how awesome the mission commander is if the heat shield has a hole in it. A strong link framework, on the other hand, focuses on the strengths of the enterprise as the most dependent outcome for success or failure; Art; Basketball. Things where it’s more important to be brilliant than clean are strong link activities. The Warriors will never be bad as long as they have Steph. They may not win it all if they don’t have the other parts…but they’ll never be bad.
Career progress is a strong link activity. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to apply a weak link framework to failure in arrears though. Wallowing in our shortcomings a bit as we wander back from the blast radius is seductive. When we think about our failures, all of our weaknesses rush to the front of the room and become the "why" behind them. In reality, those weaknesses are there in success and failure. When we succeed, they’re running in the background instead of center stage. Which is not really that interesting an insight. What’s interesting, or what we often get wrong, is what puts them there. And it isn’t focusing on fixing them. It’s actually crowding them out with our strengths.
I’ve had a long and rewarding professional career that I hope has many more chapters left in it. Through the journey I’ve gained some amazing mentors with the types of wild success most of us only dream about. They’re a wellspring of insight and guidance and I leaned on them heavily through this experience (related: get mentors). What every single one of them told me as I engaged them over the last few months could be distilled into the same core insight. And it’s something like this:
At some point in your life you’ve got to figure out what it is that gives you energy in your work. And figure out what sucks it out of you. Take on the jobs that are full of the former and not overly dependent on the latter. And be brutally honest about two things:
What you’re good at.
What the job you’re about to do requires.
Those are two questions we have no problem asking ourselves. The problem is the answers. They’re full of self deception and ego traps. And they’re far away in time from the failure when it arrives; often months or years. So we don’t think of them as nearly as critical as we ought to. We don’t put the rigor into them. They become “top button failures” one of my mentors calls them. As in, if you don’t button the top button of the shirt in the right hole, you can’t button any of the others right either…no matter how hard to you try make up for the first miss. It’s already wrecked.
A former CEO of a fortune 100 company told me to write down the narrative of the trail of wins I’ve had like it were a short story someone would want to read. Lay it on. Celebrate it. Be miraculous. His point was that no one reads stories about being organized or having great project plans or accounting. Anthemic narratives are strong link. They’re heroes’ journeys that focus on the towering strength of the hero. And through that process I was reminded of who I was at my core; a builder. I create early stage capabilities. I see systems and organizational structure before they are there. And I can paint that vision clear and bright for whoever needs to be convinced. I’ve done it enough times in enough unrelated places to have confidence that I’m not just capable; but exceptional. And if I’m not willing to say that out loud then what’s the point? It’s only hubris if you think you can do it with everything everywhere.
I can’t do that with everything everywhere. And my failure came when the job had nothing to do with what I am exceptional at doing. And all the focusing on fixing what’s wrong with me wasn’t going to change that. So it wasn’t going to work. It rarely does. We don’t swing the needle that much. We don’t slay the dragons of the things we’re not good at and become great at them. We just die tired. Because you’re career and what you choose to do with your professional skills is strong link framework.
Disclaimer: If you’re a monster of a person…then I’m not sure this applies. But the good news is that you probably aren’t…
None of this is actually novel or bravely controversial. But we just don’t do it well. We aren’t honest about what we’re good at. And we’re not honest about what it takes to do a specific job well. Be it ego, self deception or something else, we’re not. I wasn’t and found myself spending my time diving face first into the wood chipper every day wondering why I wasn’t that happy or effective. And then I spent a good deal of time ignoring the writing on the wall in service to the great god of accountability that says that you can’t quit on anything and all reasons for failure are excuses.
Reasons for failure aren’t excuses. They’re reasons. And admitting I was in the wrong job after it flamed out isn’t making an excuse. It’s pushing my accountability to a different spot. Up front. At the top button. So I’ll never make the same mistake again.
There’s volumes written about how valuable it is for products to fail fast. How innovation happens with learning to not fear failure is crucial. It’s all great stuff to motivate business school students and second generation tech execs with massive social safety nets. But it’s not great advice for the careers of humans who wander through this world with responsibilities. With college loans to pay off. With families to feed and provide with health care. With kids to put through college. Failure isn’t fun. It’s traumatic. The old Zuckerberg axiom isn’t move fast and break people. It’s move fast and break things. People don’t recover so well. So do the work to understand what makes you awesome at work. And do as much of it as you can. But have the courage to be honest with yourself. It’s worth it.
While it’s true that fearing failure too much is harmful, failure still sucks. It’s not as cool as they make it sound in books about innovation. Save it for the really hard problems where the enemy or the market gets the best of you. Not for when you were too hard headed to think it through from the start.
In the midst of this exact process as we speak. Valuable insight and def know I'm better off hiring someone to do the things that suck the life out of me within my day-to-day.