Perspective on Failure

A few weeks ago towards the end of an engineer’s interview she asked me a very interesting question, “Have you ever failed at anything?”  That really got me to thinking.

Looking back, if I were to describe my life I would say that I have been extremely fortunate.  I achieved first and foremost a happy and healthy family, had a very exciting career as an entrepreneur and corporate leader so far, and earned academic credentials up to a PhD. By most measures of success, I’ve done well so far.

Except, it would be glib to say, ‘No, I have never failed.’  What the nostalgic rear view mirror ignores is that of course I have failed many, many times.  This blog is full of stories where things went wrong (Don’t Take your Foot off the Gas PedalSetting a meeting on fire; A Tale of (Near) Failure; Get out there even if it hurts!).  I failed exams, I screwed up projects, I had products that came late, and depending on how far you want to drill down into the detail, I have had all sorts of little failures like forgetting meetings and the like.

Answering a question like ‘Have you ever failed’ depends on how you go about summarizing things, and the resolution at which you look at them.  At the macro-level I’ve so far been blessed with success pretty consistently.  The further you drill down, the more you realize that each of those successes consists of a varying range of positive and negative events. It’s just that statistically the positive events outweigh the negative ones, otherwise the end result wouldn’t have been what it was: I passed more exams than I failed, I passed more exams with good grades than I did with bad grades, and the same is generally true for my career and my personal life.

In retrospect that’s easy to analyse with 20/20 hindsight. Analysis is more challenging when you’re headed toward a current macro-level milestone, in other words when whatever goal you’ve set for yourself has not been achieved yet but you’re on your way to achieving it. At that point, all you see is the statistical fluctuation of micro-level outcomes.  And that’s where I think most people give up.  I believe that my macro-level successes have not so much been a function of my skill set, or what people call luck. They have largely been a result of perseverance: looking at the individual ups and downs in the road while keeping an eye firmly on the prize, and just continuing to keep going.  If there is one philosophical lesson here it is that you cannot actually judge your long term performance on the basis of the current micro-level fluctuation.

Don’t overcompensate or get too discouraged at the micro-level.  When you see people work themselves into a frenzy, get all stressed out, and need personal therapy to get over a university exam or some other truly microscopic milestone, they are just digging their own hole by missing the big picture.  If you let yourself be consumed by these micro events that will ultimately have minor or no impact on the macro scale, you are much more likely to despair, fall into depression, give up, move on, or think you are unworthy.  But if you keep a level headed perspective and focus on the macro-level objectives, you will be able to better accept and learn from the micro-level failures[1].

There is nobody who achieves perfect success at the micro-level.  It’s only at the macro-level that things ultimately pan out, or not.  Measure achievement in life at the macro-level.

[1] Of course, there’s a whole other topic here of what constitutes worthwhile macro-level objectives, and the interplay between personal, professional, and educational goals, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

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