Perfect failures, real successes

‘I’ve missed more than 9 000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeeded.”

Those are the words of Michael Jordan, the greatest ever basketball player and one of the planet’s most recognised and admired athletes. In that 30-second sound-bite Jordan makes plain something most of us are afraid even to think about: I succeeded because I was willing to fail.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers is similarly filled with stories of people practising over and over again—and accepting that along this road failure will always walk hand in hand with success.

Some corporates play the Jordan video clip at employee workshops as a motivational tool: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.”

But what we talk about much less is failure—that if accepted and understood, failure can pave the way to success. I think that South Africans are very uncomfortable with failure, so we don’t yet do well enough at using setbacks as part of our collective learning.

Last week I was training people in running more effective meetings. We needed a hot topic because, as Nancy Kline writes in her book Time to Think, the mind works best in the presence of a question. We settled on: “What are the pros and cons of hosting the 2010 World Cup?”

It was a fabulous discussion.

On the downside: the debt incurred, the long school holiday and the consequences for children whose best meal comes from the school feeding scheme, maintenance in the future and stadiums becoming white elephants.

The upside: family bonding, accelerated infrastructure development, reinvigorated national pride and the boost for the sport that involves the most children irrespective of their social class.

There was also anxiety, a fear of failure; fear that we would not acquit ourselves well enough; that an ugly incident would sully excitement.

Last Saturday, just 20 days before the opening World Cup match, Wits University played Amazulu FC at Soccer City and the Blue Bulls played the Crusaders at Orlando stadium. What a nightmare. The Soweto surrounds were jammed up with traffic moving slowly through roadworks. But what a blessing—a serious practice run, a chance to make mistakes, provided we create an environment supportive enough for us to learn from.

I meet people who are so scared of failing that they limit their lives by not giving themselves permission to pursue something they really want to try. I meet people who have failed, who are paralysed by their failure and can’t reflect and recover fast enough to find a way forward that incorporates their learning. I know people who have failures in their careers who are intolerant of others’ failures. There are others (is this most prevalent in government?) so scared of failure that they keep performance targets vague so as to fudge accountability and so deny themselves a chance really to plan.

As far as companies go, “intelligent failures” should be welcomed; that was the nub of a Business Week story four years ago, one of the best I’ve read on failure. “Figuring out how to master this process of failing fast, and failing cheap, and fumbling towards success is probably the most important thing companies have to get good at,” said Scott Anthony, then managing director of consulting firm Innosight.

“Getting good” at failure and how failure breeds success is not an easy philosophical approach to adopt. “Failure’s capacity to teach” (July 2006 Business Week, “How Failure Breeds Success”) is surely what we need most from our global recession and environmental challenges.

“I make mistakes. Mistakes make me” is Martha Beck’s teaching to her coaching students. It’s said those managers whose CVs include a flop is an important criterion for getting a job with Richard Branson’s Virgin Management Ltd.

Closer to home, we are about to host the biggest sporting event in the world. It is exciting. It is intimidating. We may be aspiring towards zero defect, but however good our preparations, the unexpected happens—witness the ash cloud.

In the build-up to our wedding in 2008, I veered towards creating tension for myself and those around me with my unrelenting attention to detail. But my husband-to-be gave me a gift that is timeless and invaluable. More than once he said: “Not everything has to be perfect for it to be perfect.”

So, although I look forward to the World Cup, I accept that some mistakes will be made. I hope we embrace these with compassion—there are so many people working so hard to make this event a national success, who are having sleepless nights, or taking pills in order to sleep. And when things don’t work out, let’s give ourselves some time for learning, not blaming. In the meantime, it might be helpful to remember, “not everything has to be perfect for it to be perfect”.

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