As the year comes to a close, I have been reflecting on the past year, one filled with challenge and growth for me. In order to grow, we have to learn how to overcome challenges. But there are a multitude of occasions where we learn through failing to overcome challenges. Over time, I have come to recognize that successes cannot occur without failures.
This wisdom was further amplified by a Farnam Street weekly eNewsletter that I get in my inbox every Sunday. In this newsletter, there was a wonderful quote that started my thinking:
“Early-career setback appears to cause a performance improvement among those who persevere. Overall, these findings are consistent with the concept that ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,’ which may have broad implications for identifying, training and nurturing junior scientists.”
This study hits home for me. I remember early in my engineering career how I really struggled to find my footing. I have told many that the first half dozen years I felt like a failure. On many occasions, I considered leaving engineering. Success occurred when I moved to a company that was more aligned with who I was as a person and a professional, and had an excellent training/mentoring program. I progressed quickly. I am really glad I persevered — but more importantly, I am glad that I took many lessons away from my many failures — I didn’t blame anyone else, I looked at those painful experiences as a way to improve and get better. The deeper the failure, the more opportunity to improve.
This is similar to what Scott Adams (The Dilbert Cartoonist) wrote in his book “How I Failed at Everything and Still Won Big” (a book that I highly recommend). In his book, he talks about why systems are better than goals, skills to develop and of course, his failures. Mr. Adams makes the argument that “Nietzsche famously said, ‘what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.’ It sounds clever, but it's a loser philosophy. I don't want my failures to simply make me stronger, which I interpret as making me better able to survive future challenges. Becoming stronger is obviously a good thing, but it’s only barely optimistic. I do want my failures to make me stronger, of course, but I also want to become smarter, more talented, better networks, healthier and more energized… failure is a resource that can be managed.”
Failure as a managed resource is an interesting paradigm, and it is one that has been illustrated numerous times in history. On my friend Kevin Black’s podcast, he interviews the author of “Generals in the Making” In this podcast episode, I learned that some of the greatest generals in U.S. history, Marshall and Eisenhower, both had early career setbacks that almost cut their careers short. Marshall’s career was almost derailed by MacArthur when he was put into a backwater role. Eisenhower lost his 3 year-old son. There were opportunities for them to give up and get out. But instead, they stuck with their vocation. Marshall excelled in that “backwater” and was quickly “re-promoted,” while Eisenhower just persevered through the pain. Obviously, both were two of the pivotal players in the Allied victory during WW2: Marshall organized the entire U.S. and Allied War effort, while Eisenhower led the D-Day invasion. Both of these men had up/down paths to the top echelons of the U.S. military (and later presidency) – the rest of us would do well to remember that in our own lives.
My takeaway: It’s easy to think that success is a linear road. Perhaps in some instances, it is. However, as I have read more and more about some of history's most impactful characters, almost all of them had bumpy roads — anything but linear. Their impact and success were a direct result of having experienced failure, and from having dealt with or managed it. Success means learning to embrace the struggle, and to fail forward. The only question that remains is: What will you fail and grow from in 2022?
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