The Value of Failure

First Posted August 31, 2012.

CurledProps-Dad
B-29 US Army Air Corps Guam 1944-45. My Father is on the far left.

During a conversation with one of my sons the other day, we were talking about doing things that are hard, not doing them well, and then coming through it all with success. Reminded me of my father's experience during the Second World War of landing in a B-29 without its running gear down. As they say, any landing you walk away from is a good landing. You could say that any failure you learn from is a good failure.

One of the ways to talk about this is to "fail-fast." Lots of people use this terminology as a way to more quickly learn what works and what doesn't. What I did not realize until a minute ago when I Googled the term, trying to track down where I first heard it, was that it is a specific function in systems theory. Here's a description from Wikipedia.

"A fail-fast system is designed to immediately report at its interface any failure or condition that is likely to lead to failure. Fail-fast systems are usually designed to stop normal operation rather than attempt to continue a possibly flawed process. Such designs often check the system's state at several points in an operation, so any failures can be detected early. A fail-fast module passes the responsibility for handling errors, but not detecting them, to the next-higher system design level."

I really love this idea. But you have to be, not so much fail-tolerant, but change oriented. Change as in, "Oh, boy, I get to learn something new today!"

Learning from failure is a way to accelerate change processes. If we have a goal or an ambition in mind, the quicker we learn how to make it work, the quicker we get to our goal. People who work in highly complex manufacturing systems understand this. Their error tolerances are miniscule compared to most of us. We learn to accommodate our failures, too often, by not learning from them and becoming better. The point is not to accept failure as a normal part of life and work, but to learn from it and change to be better.

What does failure really show us?

More than anything it shows us our limitations. That is not a bad thing. It provides a boundary from which we can work. It is easy to think of this in physical terms.

Years ago I was rock climbing with some friends. Nothing serious. No equipment. Just climbing around. I was under a sloping rock shelf about 10 feet tall that had an opening in it. I thought, I'll crawl up and out to get on top. It was the sort of thing that I had always done as a kid climbing trees and things.

As I got up into the hole, I found that I was going into a  hole that became wider as I climbed through. Wider than I was long. No place to place both my hands and feet. I found myself flat out, front side up, with nowhere to go. I was in real trouble. With the help of friends, I got myself out of that mess.

This fast failure taught me a lesson. Be careful. Be belayed. Know my limitations and the limitations of the setting that I am in.

Failure also teaches us about fear. More about what we do fear, rather than what we should fear. There is a difference.

If we fear failure, what precisely are we afraid of?

Are we afraid of humiliation or something worse?

Does this fear block us for taking a chance, to possibly fail at something?

Or does our fear help us, as Gavin De Becker shows in his book, The Gift of Fear.

Fear is another one of those limitations that lets us know where we stand. It is a boundary that we either overcome or respect. Both require courage and humility.

I was thinking of this after David Pu'u sent me a link to Orianthi's Courage music video.

Courage here is persistence in the face of limitations and challenges that face us. It is the kind of character that is needed to learn from failure.

Failure, therefore, is just another lesson along the journey of life. As long as you are learning from your mistakes, it really isn't failure. Failure in this sense is really quitting, giving up, without any expectation of starting over, beginning fresh or recommitting to figuring out what went wrong.

What is the relation of failure to success?

This is an on-going conversation that my friend Tom Morris and I have had over the years. Succeed too easily or at too young an age, and you may not have a full appreciation for what you've gained. To fail successfully is to learn and build upon the lessons of failing.  When success finally comes, it is sweeter for knowing what was required to get there.

So, my friends, never fear failure. Only fear not taking advantage of the opportunity to learn that failure brings our way.


The Moral Component

When we are young, the world is an open book.

There is nothing like being 11 years old with a vivid imagination and absolutely no sense of barriers in life. Then adolescence hits, and we realize that there are some limitations.  Some people are more popular, cooler, smarter; some more troubled and broken. Others are destined for success, happiness or a life of hardship and toil.

Then the hard work of finding just how open and limitless one's opportunities are begins. It may start at 15 or at 21. It may not become important until we are 30 or even 45, and when we do, we realize that our life needs to count for something. When we discover, not just our interest or passion, but our purpose, our destiny, then life changes. Forever.

When we discover the difference our lives should make, our options are immediately reduced, narrowed, defined. We find out that life has limitations, all of a sudden, there is an end point, way out there, when we can say, "I'm done."  At least, that is what we think.

At some point, we may also discover that the pursuit of our destiny is more than just achieving something, more than simply a destination. There is something embedded in the middle of that pursuit that when we were young we could not see, maybe only feel. It was always there, but it wasn't clear to us. Then at some moment, a line is crossed, and we discover that there is a moral component to this quest to fulfill our destiny. We realize that it is no longer about just about destiny, but the journey that leads there.

This moral component is not some abstract, philosophical concept that stands as a branded idea for your life. There are plenty of people who brand their morality, wearing it on their shirt sleeve, and capitalizing on it by capitalizing it.  That is not the moral component that I see.

This moral component is something simple, deep, and intangible. It is the quality or rather the virtue that makes a difference in how we live out our purpose. It is something about who we are as individuals, about our life, work and impact.

Martin Luther King had that moral component. So did Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Lincoln. Each of them was their own person, standing strong as the world around them went a different direction. That is the strength that comes from the moral component.  It isn't ego that made them strong, though they probably had strong egos.

The moral component is something else. It transcends our circumstances, our place in history and the singular importance of us as individuals. It is that indelible quality that links us with others through time, and gives our destiny and purpose its meaning, and the reason our commitment and resilience matters.

Even if I live another 40 years, given my family's genetics, I see that I have now passed some indecipherable midpoint in my career.  My options are fewer now than they were just five years ago. I see it, and find peace in that. It makes things more simple, and to an extent clearer.

When you are young, there is anxiety about what your life will become, and the difference you'll make, and whether it will truly count in the end.  There are thousands of options, choices, directions to go in. Everyone tells you that you can do anything you want. However, in the back of your mind, you know it isn't true. You just want to know what that one thing is that is your destiny.

I no longer worry about that. I find that as life proceeds, the moral component grows in importance because at the end of life, it is that which is our true legacy. 

A friend said during a group conversation that he wanted his legacy to be that he was a good man, a good husband and father, and ran his business well.  The moral component for him was becoming more clear, and knowing him well, I see it in the life choices that he has made over the years. 

Philosophers and historians speak of the moral component in many ways. One of those is the difference between a naive and reflective view of history.

A naive perspective refers to a lack of self-consciousness about the values that inform our lives. There is a sense of not seeing it at all because it is so much a part of one's life, like breathing air or water to fish, we don't notice it.  There is an innocence about this approach. This experience of the moral component in life is such that we see it as continuous through time, across the generations and the foundation upon which we understand the meaning of life. It is unself-conscious because we do not hold these moral values in any objective sense. They are highly subjective and personal, quite possibly never defined in any specific sense. Yet they exist, and we tend to begin to see them when they are under threat.  They are who we are in a real sense, and this even more so as we consistently live them out in a purposeful, intentional way.

A reflective approach stands apart from the moral component, and attempts to view it objectively. Yet this is impossible in any pure, scientific sense because what brings us to this relationship with the moral component is awareness of the connection between the idea and our own lives. We become aware that we lacked objectivity in our formerly naive view of life.  We may speak of this change of perspective as a loss of innocence or coming of age or quite possibly of becoming a cynic. We experience a disjunction or disconnection between our values and the social and organizational environments where we live and work, and stand apart viewing the moral component, trying to understand how it fits in the situation we are in. 

The moral component viewed from these two perspectives is a very complex phenomenon in our lives. We may find that we want to be both naive and reflective at the same time. We want to believe in our values, seeing them as universal, transcending time, space and culture, the way life ought to be, bring purpose, peace and fulfillment.  We may see that these values are rarely lived to their fullest, that some of the greatest proponents of these values were crooks and charlatans, and that there are other philosophies or perspectives that are compelling and valid in their own right.

Where this leads for some people is to confusion and for some to an abandonment of their hope for fulfillment of their destiny. For others, they embrace the moral component as a guide to create a life of goodness and difference that matters.

The people I mentioned earlier are these people. They held to their values in a changing world where their values were not normative. We remember them as much for their courage as for the values they believed in.

As I have reflected upon this picture over the past few months, I began to see that the moral component of life and leadership matters in ways that have been lost. For many people, their naive view of the way leaders should behave and function in their roles has experienced a loss of innocence. With that loss has come cynicism. And what must come next, is a recovery of a more sober, realistic understanding of the moral component in leadership being that which brings credibility and respect to them.

Making a difference that matters, making our lives count, creating a legacy of leadership and goodness comes from recognizing and developing the moral component in our life and work.

This means that we are aware of the values that matter to us, and that we must live according to them. To stand when everyone else is running away or in cynical denial of their own loss of innocence is to live by a moral code than is more than a brand or an inspiring-idea-of-the-month. In the end, this is what separates the moralists from those who truly lead.  This is the legacy that is possible for us all if we choose.


9/11 - Learning from the past

WhatDidYouDoInTheWarDaddy

You may hear this said a lot today.

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." (George Santayana).

It would be also helpful to hear Paul Simon sing the words from his song The Boxer,

"Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

There are many lessons to be learned from the most costly terrorist attack ever on American soil. The question are we in a mindset to learn them?

In an excerpt from his new book, A Journey: My Political Life, former British Prime MinisterTony Blair states,

In short, we have become too apologetic, too feeble, too inhibited, too imbued with doubt and too lacking in mission. Our way of life, our values, the things that made us great, remain not simply as a testament to us as nations but as harbingers of human progress. They are not relics of a once powerful politics; they are the living spirit of the optimistic view of human history. All we need to do is to understand that they have to be reapplied to changing circumstances, not relinquished as redundant.

While we may find some comfort in his words, I'd say his perspective is not large enough.

The nations and culture of the West are products of long historical trends that are at a transition point.

One of those trends was the Enlightenment belief in rationalism, preeminently embedded in our belief in the progress that would come to humankind through Science. For many Science (large S) has become the replacement religion of intellectuals. It did not require a belief in any mystical being or in the aristocratic social and political structure of old Europe. As a philosophy, it was a ideology of revolution that turned upside down virtually every nation in the northern hemisphere.  In a very real sense, this belief in progress was a belief in the morality of science and progress. For as a replacement religion, it inevitably had to have a moral core to its purpose.

This belief in the absolute and ultimate fulfillment of human progress began to erode with the outbreak of World War I. There was an innocence about this belief in progress prior to the war. However, with it, innocence was lost, and irony as Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, was the result.

lrony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.One reason the Great War was more ironic than any other was that its beginning was more innocent. "Never such innocence again," observes Philip Larkin, ...

Furthermore, the Great War, was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful "history" involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. The shrewd recruiting poster depicting a worried father of the future being asked by his children, "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?" assumes a future whose moral and social pressures are identical with those of the past. Today, when each day's experience seems notably ad hoc, no such appeal would shame the most stupid to the recruiting office. But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates,"  In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about.

I see that the past decade, in a different way, has brought us back to the place Europe was in 1914. There is a loss of innocence, a loss of purpose, a loss of confidence and loss of knowing what we must do. We live in a time of irony and cynicism, of suspicion and warring factions, where all motives are suspect. We live in a time where words as abstractions that transcend time, giving us perspective and direction for the future, are lost in meaningless of the sales pitch.

As we remember those who died at the hands of terrorists on 9/11/2001, let us not fall into a belief that hope and meaning are lost. That the course of human history is downward toward the apocalypse. Rather, let us see that we are at a crossroads in history, not just the history of our nation, but the history of all humankind.  To see the long view is to see that there is a historical progression that leads to our time.

Let me end with a long quote from Peter Thiel's essay, The Optimistic Thought Experiment.Thiel is co-founder and former chairman and CEO of PayPal, Inc. In his essay addresses the same questions that have interested me over the past several months. He sees two ways forward.

In the long run, there are no good bets against globalization

And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.  - Luke 17:26–30

For the judeo-western inspiration, it is a mistake of the first magnitude to place too much value on the things of this world. Those who busy themselves with the meaningless ideologies of politics, or with the interminable drama of human soap operas, or with the limitless accumulation of wealth, are losing sight of the impending catastrophe that may unfold towards the end of history. The entire human order could unravel in a relentless escalation of violence — famine, disease, war, and death. The final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, even gives a name and a place: The Battle of Armageddon in the Middle East is the great conflagration that would end the world. Against this future, it is far better to save one ’s immortal soul and accumulate treasures in heaven, in the eternal City of God, than it is to amass a fleeting fortune in the transient and passing City of Man.

For the rationalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as for all those who consider themselves cosmopolitan today, this sort of hysterical talk about the end of the world was deemed to be the exclusive province of people who were either stupid or wicked or insane (although mostly just stupid). Scientific inculcation would replace religious indoctrination. Today, we no longer believe that Zeus will strike down errant humans with thunderbolts, and so we also can rest peacefully in the certain knowledge that there exists no god who will destroy the whole world.

And yet, if the truth were to be told, our slumber is not as peaceful as it once was. Beginning with the Great War in 1914, and accelerating after 1945, there has re-emerged an apocalyptic dimension to the modern world. In a strange way, however, this apocalyptic dimension has arisen from the very place that was meant to liberate us from antediluvian fears. This time around, in the year 2008, the end of the world is predicted by scientists and technologists. One can read about it every day in the New York Times, that voice of the rational and cosmopolitan Establishment. Will it be an environmental catastrophe like runaway global warming, or will it be murderous robots, Ebola viruses genetically recombined with smallpox, nanotech devices that dissolve the living world into a gray goo, or the spread of miniature nuclear bombs in terrorist briefcases?

Even if it is not yet possible for humans to destroy the whole world, on current trends it might just be a matter of time. The relentless proliferation of nuclear weapons remains the most obvious case in point. The United States became the first nuclear power in 1945; by the 1960s and through the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, five declared nuclear states (the U.S., the uk, France, the ussr, and China) maintained a semi-stable equilibrium (at least as recounted by the historians who know ex post that the Cold War remained cold); as of today, there are two more known nuclear states (India, Pakistan) and perhaps even more (Israel, North Korea). And what if there are 20 nuclear powers in 2020, or 50 nuclear powers in 2050, armed with Jupiter missiles that can rain down destruction on enemies everywhere? We suspect the answer to this question, for we know that there exists some point beyond which there is no stable equilibrium and where there will be a nuclear Armageddon. A scientific or mathematical calculus of the apocalypse has replaced the mystic vision of religious prophets. 1

On the surface, the world’s financial markets remain eerily complacent. For the most part, they remain firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, when the march of History and Progress were more optimistic and certain. Although it encounters perturbations and larger corrections, the climb of the Dow Jones continues on an inexorable north-easterly path.

The news and business sections seem to inhabit different worlds that coexist on the same planet but rarely intersect. 2 Most financial actors are content to rule their separate kingdom, and to refrain from unprofitable questions about the integrity of the larger whole. Those who ask too many questions are not given a serious hearing. Like the deranged orators in London ’s Hyde Park, the prognosticators of a financial doomsday have been wrong for too long. Consequently, they have been relegated to a marginal role, if for no other reason than that they have lost most of their money and have no significant capital left to invest in anything.

More generally, apocalyptic thinking appears to have no place in the world of money. For if the doomsday predictions are fulfilled and the world does come to an end, then all the money in the world — even if it be in the form of gold coins or pieces of silver, stored in a locked chest in the most remote corner of the planet — would prove of no value, because there would be nothing left to buy or sell. Apocalyptic investors will miss great opportunities if there is no apocalypse, but ultimately they will end up with nothing when the apocalypse arrives. Heads or tails, they lose.

In a narrow sense, it seems rational for investors to remain encamped at the altar of the efficient market — and just tend their own small gardens without wondering about the health of the world. A mutual fund manager might not benefit from reflecting about the danger of thermonuclear war, since in that future world there would be no mutual funds and no mutual fund managers left. Because it is not profitable to think about one ’s death, it is more useful to act as though one will live forever. 3

Such a narrowing of one’s horizon cannot, however, be the last word. After all, there exists some connection between the real world of events, on the one hand, and the virtual world of finance, on the other. For macro investors, it would be an abdication not to wrestle with the central question of our age: How should the risk of a comprehensive collapse of the world economic and political system factor into one ’s decisions?

From the point of view of an investor, one may define such a “secular apocalypse” as a world where capitalism fails. Therefore, the secular apocalypse would encompass not only catastrophic futures in which humanity completely self-destructs (most likely through a runaway technological disaster), but also include a range of other scenarios in which free markets cease to function, such as a series of wars and crises so disruptive as to drive the developed world towards fascism, anarchy, or both.

Since the direct approach to our central question leads to paradoxes, absurdities, or at best money-losing investment schemes, it might prove more profitable to explore the inverse as a thought experiment: What must happen for there to be no secular apocalypse — for what one might call the “optimistic” version of the future to unfold? And furthermore, which sectors will do well — surprisingly well, in fact — if the world more or less stays intact, even if there are some major bumps and dislocations along the way? Any investor who ignores the apocalyptic dimension of the modern world also will underestimate the strangeness of a twenty-first century in which there is no secular apocalypse . If one does not think about forest fires, then one does not fully understand the teleology of each tree — and one badly will undervalue those trees that are immune to all but the greatest of fires. Even in our time of troubled confusion, there exists a chance that some things will work out immeasurably better than most believe possible.

(Read the whole essay.)

The task before us is large because we are venturing into an unknown world where the past is not our greatest asset, but a distraction. We need to see history in its proper context, and learn new ways of being a global society. This is the conversation that we should have today. And I hope that you'll take some time with loved ones to reflect back nine years, and then ask the optimistic question, without doubt or guilt or recrimination, how could we make this different a decade from now. Then our remembrance of those lost will honor their lives, and not simply feel sorry for them and angry at their murderers.

May God give us all peace and wisdom on this day of remembrance.

Image: The Great War and Modern Memory: The Illustrated Edition, Paul Fussell


You are in control of you - Admiral James Stockdale on surviving in stressful situations

This week's Weekly Leader column - You are in charge of you - looks at the stress that Stockdale reunion - Academy of Achievementcomes from losing one's job in the context of the story of James Stockdale, the highest ranking US POW imprisoned during the Vietnam War.

A long section from an excellent interview posted at the Academy of Achievement where Admiral Stockdale tells about how he managed the psychological stress of imprisonment, and the role that the philosophy of Epictetus had in his survival.

Admiral, how did you survive psychologically? The other men you mentioned perished under the same circumstances.

James Stockdale: I don't know. I didn't feel like I had more vitality than the next one. I had things to do. I was alone a lot, and I found ways to talk to myself and to bolster my own morale. I was getting occasional letters from my wife Sybil. And she would from me. She probably wrote 50 and I got six, and I probably wrote 20 and she got two or something like that.

After I came out of Alcatraz, we all came back to the regular prison. They tried to get me to go downtown. They tried everything. They would give me the ropes three times a week. One of my original breakthroughs was self disfiguration. I was given a lot of times in the ropes in room 18, which is the main torture chamber of Hoa Lo prison. It also serves as kind of a ceremonial chamber when no prisoners are in there. In that, the only room in the building, a great big building with plate glass windows, and they had big heavy quilts that they drew across it. I was in there and they were about at their wits end. Two officers were working me over. Pi Ga, my torture guard, was always there to take me wherever they wanted. It was about mid-afternoon and they said, "Okay, you've done okay, today. Now you want to get washed up." I knew what that meant. That meant we were going downtown that night.

Continue reading "You are in control of you - Admiral James Stockdale on surviving in stressful situations" »


Quick Takes: John Challis Update

John Challis is the Pennsylvania kid who is dying from cancer, and through sports has found a courage to live that has impacted people nationwide. I wrote about him here and link to some videos on him. Watch this ESPN video and see if you aren't touched by John's attitude toward life. Imagine impacted your younger sister like he has. Something special.


"All I'm doing is making the best of a situation." - John Challis' story

Listening to Scott Van Pelt's ESPN radio show this afternoon, I heard the story of John Challis. It is aJohn_challis_pittsburgh_post_gazett touching story of a Pennsylvania high school kid dying from cancer who was put in to bat during his high school team's game. He got a hit.

Nothing unusual about cancer and kids, we've all known families where cancer has struck the young. The difference here is John's attitude.

Mike White of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote the story about John and spoke with Scott on the radio this afternoon.

Read the whole story.

Watch these three videos produced by the paper. It's worth the time.

John's greater purpose

I felt like Superman

Courage + believe = life

Listen when Johnny says,

"I used to be afraid, but I'm not afraid of dying now, if that's what you want to know. ... Because life ain't about how many breaths you take. It's what you do with those breaths."

A year doesn't pass without someone who has touched my life dying. Most recently, it was Galba Bright.  A few months ago, childhood friend Phil Chapman and earlier, friend and mentor Dick Wallace. What I've learned from the loss of these friends is that they are only lost if they had nothing to leave. But each left a legacy of contribution to people, their families, their professions and their communities.

For those of us who remain, we need to hear Johnny's words as an admonition to make the most of what have in the situations we are in, and then to leave a legacy that will remain in the lives of people. With each of these people there is one thing that I will treasure and try to emulate in remembrance of them. In so doing, they live on in me and by extension in those whose lives I hope to touch.

It is not enough to be emotionally touched by Johnny's story. I cried when I heard Scott and Mike White the Pittsburgh reporter talk about Johnny this afternoon. Take John Challis' example as a challenge to be a better person tomorrow. That is what Johnny wants. He wants his story to help each of us be better people. What a legacy for a skinny little 18 year old from the hills of western Pennsylvania to leave.

Thanks Johnny. You the man. In every respect.