How do you cope with Failure?
This is a much asked question. But our attitude toward Failure has changed over the last couple of decades – especially for the tech folks.
Let’s roll back to 1980:
You: I failed!
The World: You suck. Clean up the mess and make sure no one notices!
And today – 2020:
You: I failed.
The World: Congratulations! Let’s celebrate it with a Failure Jam and some champagne. Keep Failing fast and often. That’s the route to success. Cheerio!
Times change. Attitudes change with time. Failure is a Multi-million dollar phenomenon today – and therefore, the failure business is certainly succeeding big today!
If you haven’t attended a failure Jam, do one right away. Kind souls who have gone through Failure share their learnings and how they ended up on the success path. They believe their solutions are transferable and are happy to share their silver bullets with us (sometimes for a fee!).
But “it’s not all’s well that ends’ well” – yet.
While these Jams are very motivational, I feel we need additional perspective to craft our life strategies. Three areas, in particular, need further exploration:
Is Old always Gold?
Many Failure-to-success stories span over 4 to 6 years. In the technology world of today, that’s a lifetime. I wonder if the strategies that worked out earlier are sufficient, given the passage of time. Or will we end up like Lil Ness and his horse in modern-day America?
OK, here’s the thing – you’ll notice Lil Ness actually wins the race. So maybe it will all just turn out fine!
Does the Survivor really know Failure?
Darwin presciently observed that nature supports the fittest. The rest die. I worry that most of the Failure turned successes have a strong survivor bias – we only hear the winners’ side of the story. How about those who failed? And how many actually succeeded?
Tell me a good “Failure” story.
I suspect some stories are stitched backward from the big success. It makes for great listening, but is it repeatable? For instance, take the famous example of a man being passed over for promotion. Our man thinks he’s ready; his boss feels otherwise. A few drinks later, our guy picks up the threads and decides to get over his disappointment. He devises a robust “getting past failure” roadmap, which then earns him two promotions over the next five years. Told well, this story deserves and receives resounding applause every single time. From a data standpoint, things are a little hazy, though. How can we be sure these promotions were caused by the roadmap and lessons learned? Couldn’t they be attributed to the better opportunities that had come his way since?
Oh, oh! This Failure thing is turning me into a Doubting Thomas. I reach out to Alain de Botton and his school of life to see if he has any philosophy tools to resolve my confusion.
They don’t disappoint. This lovely video illustrates how our ancestors viewed Failure differently. Failure wasn’t so personal – probably because we had fewer self-help books then! Watch this excellent history of Failure. Do check out the insights on how to deal with it in the last part.
Looking at Failure through a different lens
Let’s get one thing straight – I am not faulting the stories or the jams. They offer great motivation, hope, and solace. They also provide great guidelines and principles.
When someone comes to you with a failure story, should you immediately help him/her with a success roadmap? Are these roadmaps always a panacea, or are they sometimes placebos?
Are we missing a critical component to dealing with Failure?
Enter Shloka No 47, the pill for understanding Failure
When you think about something hard enough, the Universe provides you with an answer. It’s time for Shloka no 47 (sound like mambo No 5?) from the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita to make an entry. This is a very famous couplet that provides us with some unique insights.
Your choice is in action only, never in the results thereof. Do not think you are the author of the results of action. Let your attachment not be to inaction.
Saraswati, Swami Dayananda. Bhagavad Gita – Volume 2 (Bhagavad Gita Series) (Kindle Locations 3694-3695). Arsha Vidya Research and Publication Trust. Kindle Edition.
Now, what could be insightful about saying we don’t own results? Swami Dayananda explains that this is not moral advice. It is a statement of fact describing how our everyday world works.
We live in an interdependent world where numerous factors influence every single moment. It helps to remember the proverbial butterfly which flaps its wings in one place, causing a tornado in another! Here’s an excellent video on Chaos theory and how little things can cause significant effects due to system dynamics:
It’s this concept that the Shloka brilliantly weaves into its theory of outcomes. While we have an integral part in our success, there’s a lot more at play. The Shloka says three things determine results:
1. Your efforts (which you obviously own)
2. Systemic effects (e.g., COVID or an earthquake)
3. Unseen, accumulated side-effects from your earlier actions.
Systemic Effects – Effect on Failure
Systemic events are those we have no control over and cannot predict. In today’s world, an earthquake, some rare event that causes the internet to go down for a few hours, or the current pandemic all may have a significant impact on your business. And unless you are in the Nostradamus class, there’s no way you can predict these. We can hedge against the results to some extent. For instance, Netflix uses the adorably named “Chaos Monkey” to simulate network and data center crashes and validate people can still watch their movies should bad things happen. Note, they cannot predict the exact disaster, or if and when it would occur, they are prepared to minimize the adverse impact should the risks be realized.
Unseen side-effects – Effect on Failure
Unseen side-effects are an interesting phenomenon. Whenever we do an action, we earn two kinds of results – direct results and hidden results. Direct impacts are those we can see. In a moment of anger, I hit a friend, and there’s a bruise he has to show for it. That’s a direct result. But there’s also a hidden result – the neighborhood club comes to hear of the incident and cancels my membership. We call these higher-order effects.
Hidden results accumulate and create havoc – or indeed give you benefits that you cannot dream of. We often call this luck (or bad luck).
Let’s take two examples that illustrate the systemic effects and hidden results:
Example 1 – COVID plays spoilsport
As of March, your Travel and Hospitality company is clocking 40% growth. You have done all the right things and have a healthy backlog and a strong conversion rate. And then COVUD happens and sales tank. You are staring at a record loss for this year – it is a failure year. But, there’s no point in blaming yourself for this right?
Example 2 – Meditations on succession planning!
You are banking on a leader to take over a sizeable strategic initiative for your division (see I can write business jargon!). You have invested significant time ensuring she fits the role and has good visibility with leadership. Now, she tells you she wants to quit. You feel betrayed. Life is unfair!
You dig in a little deeper and realize (unpleasantly) you are the culprit. A few years ago you had a public (and messy) falling out with a protege. That protege turns out to now be your successor’s mentor! He has apparently coached her the emotional overhead of working with you is not worth all the great opportunities on offer. Your unseen karma is at work. You can blame your earlier self – perhaps you should! But you cannot blame your current actions for the Failure.
Understanding “Results” better
In summary, you are responsible for your actions. The results, though, depend on more than just your efforts.
So how do we use this information to understand our failures? There’s one more detour we need to take before we put it all together.
The Vedas list four types of results:
Results are as expected.
You worked for a promotion, and you get it. You put in the hard work and reap the consequences. Congrats!
Results are better than expected.
You aim for a top 10 rank on the public exams but end up in the top 5. This could be because you are more awesome than you think. It could also be because the competition was weaker than you expected! Or the pandemic could have caused more absenteeism, specifically from a region that has traditionally produced more top-rankers. We must take credit for our performance and host that big party.
However, we should be aware that the results were probably an outcome of systemic effects and not just our work!
Results are lower than expected
You find yourself on the (very short) promotion shortlist. Historically, the top 3 on the waitlist get through. You are Waitlist No 1, so you are confident of making it. At the last minute, your organization reduces the number of promotions to be awarded this year. You end up disappointed and curse your bad luck. Just remember that it’s not your fault alone; there were other things at play.
Results are very different – not what you expected
To maximize your chances of joining your dream company, you do a super job on your LinkedIn profile. Sadly, the Company already has filled out the position internally, so you miss out. The next day, a global HR firm calls you – they are in the profile writing business and are impressed with your resume. They offer you a job at twice the salary your Dream Organization was offering. The hidden results from your earlier actions have worked overtime – more than any efforts you have put in for this job.
In the last example, you had opened yourself to a favorable upside. That the Shloka says is all you can do. You put in your best efforts, and then the system and your past take over.
You can load the dice further. You can help yourself by going beyond what is needed every time and winning positive karma (hidden side effects), which can become an avalanche at the right moment. In fact, it is best to aim for systemic success for long term success. So here’s the moral – work toward systemic excellence, not just a Promotion!
To round it all up
We realize that there’s a place for everything in life – including Failure. Ours is a complex world, and it’s worth spending some time understanding a situation well before we embark on success maps. Once we have the necessary understanding, we can help actualize some of our desires using the super advice from those who have trodden the path before us – the Failure Jam guys.
It’s crucial to keep one thing in mind. Just as Failure is not necessarily due to our contributions alone, neither is a success. That understanding will help us stay focused when the storms of uncertainty beat upon us. We obviously should do the best we can at every moment and remain open to broader possibilities.
I know a few of you are super busy and don’t have the time to read this ten-minute post.
“Do you have a mobile-friendly summary – preferably that fits on my iPhone mini?” you ask.
Yes – here is the one-minute summary just for you.
1. Failure will happen; it’s not always due to you. So rather than immediately looking to correct it, let’s examine it a little closer.
2. Were our efforts enough? Was there anything lacking? Failure camp stories and techniques will show us the way. Do take care to ensure that you don’t take the blame (or credit) for a system loss or win!
2. In the Digital World, trust and reputation are the currencies that genuinely matter. Reputations can make or break success years down the line. Therefore, it’s worth taking feedback from our peers and teams to ensure that what we think about ourselves is public perception! Here’s a model you can use to do this
3. Isolate “Failure” factors we could not have predicted or planned anyway. Covid or earthquake are natural disasters. A DeMo was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Don’t blame yourself for accidental collateral impacts!
4. Take a minute to examine any gifts from the Universe – wins that resulted not due to your success but a systemic effect. If you got twice the bonus you expected because the economy was good, celebrate well. Also, do credit the system for your success. This will help build your gratitude muscle too!
5. Now, plan for your future. Incorporate specific actions that will make you better. Ensure you are consistently working on your reputation (don’t be known for the wrong things!). And have a plan that keeps you available and ready for any great possibilities that the Universe sends your way!
This approach has been a constant balm for helping me deal with Failure and stay grounded in the face of unexpected success. I’ll leave you with another video from SchoolOfLife, which talks about the role of luck in our lives. Don’t forget to check out my other posts and share your feedback. Here’s wishing you Godspeed luck.
After twenty years of playing IT leadership roles, I am taking some time off to read, reflect, and share thoughts on Leadership and Technology. I am specifically interested in how we can use these to further our success. You can find my work at https://nsubra.com and 2-minute daily posts at https://angulam.in