Failing into Success

by rthieme on March 1, 1997

Islands in the ClickstreamI wish I could say that I have always succeeded at everything I did, that every project I began was a win, but I can’t. Some roads led into cul-de-sacs or dead-ends. I do know, however, that I’m not alone.

These crazy times of accelerated change make it hard for anyone to feel like an unmitigated success. Many of the people I meet are not even sure any more what success looks like.

Success during changing times is not the same as success during quieter, more stable times.

GE just had a record-breaking year. GE is the most profitable company in the United States. Success has many mothers, as they say, but success at GE stems in part from the courage and vision of Jack Welch. When he inherited the mantle of leadership in 1981, he threw cold water on institutionalized complacency by declaring that if GE continued on its current course, it would run right off a cliff.

Had Welch outlined his vision thirty years earlier in 1951, he would have been declared certifiably insane. Wisdom under conditions of relative stability called for a hierarchical structure and a different style of leadership.

Wisdom, like insanity, is contextual. What is wise under one set of conditions may be insane under others.

When I deliver a speech, for example, I am animated and passionate; I behave in a way that makes sense. But an hour later, when the audience has left and the room is empty, if I still behave the same way — talking away, gesturing for emphasis — I look a bit odd.

What looked like success a few years ago may not make for success today. Those who are complacent about their success may actually be failing. Those who feel as if they are failing may in fact be on the cutting edge of life that is outgrowing its organizational boundaries and its old ways of framing reality.

Robert Galvin, the grand patriarch of Motorola, says that “every significant decision that changes the direction of a company is a minority decision. Whatever is the intuitive presumption — where everyone agrees, “Yeah, that’s right” — will almost surely be wrong.”

His company has succeeded by fostering an environment in which creativity thrives. Motorola has built in an openness to heresy because the company knows that wisdom is always arriving at the edge of things, on the horizons of our lives, and when it first shows up — like a comet on the distant edges of the solar system — it is faint and seen by only a few. But those few know where to look.

Allen Hynek, an astronomer connected with the Air Force investigation of UFOs, was struck by the “strangeness” of UFO reports, the cognitive dissonance that characterizes experiences that don’t fit our orthodox belief systems. He pointed out that all the old photographic plates in astronomical observatories had images of Pluto on them, but until Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto and said where it was, no one saw it because they didn’t know where to look.

It is not too late — it is NEVER too late — to explore new possibilities, in particular, the new ways of being in community, communicating, and accessing information that is symbolized by the Internet. Many of those who rushed into cyberspace to make money fast are closing up shop after losing lots of money. They remind me of the people who took off after gold in Alaska during the 1898 strike. A million men and women headed for Alaska. A hundred thousand crossed the border. Ten thousand made it through the mountains to the gold fields. A few of those actually struck it rich.

Who made money? The ones who sold picks and shovels to the greedy, driven prospectors as they came through the pass, the ones who bought up all the housing and rented it out.

The “robber barons” who built the railroads were mostly bankrupt a generation later, but the railroads stayed. The infrastructure that they built was used by the next generation as a framework for their lives.

What is failure and what is success? I don’t know, but those who seem to be thriving are willing to take risks and fail into success again and again. The devil is always in the details. Real success comes through trial and error.

Edison invented a hundred filaments that didn’t work before he found one that did. Every failure encouraged him. He knew that each one eliminated an incorrect possibility and brought him closer to his goal.

Listen to “Rogue Agent,” a computer hacker who set someone straight who wanted to give simple rules to would-be computer hackers.

“You want to create hackers? Don’t tell them how to do this or that. Show them how to discover it for themselves. Those who have the innate drive will dive in and learn by trial and error. Those who don’t, comfortable to stay within the bounds of their safe little lives, fall by the wayside.

“There’s no knowledge so sweet as that which you’ve discovered on your own.”

The best engineers are like those hackers. Their endless curiosity and refusal to accept conventional wisdom is a declaration on behalf of the human spirit. Their failures are an affirmation of life itself, life that wants to know, and grow, and extend itself throughout the universe.

Computer programmers write software applications that are doomed to be as obsolete as wire recordings or programs for an IBM XT. The infrastructures built by engineers are equally doomed. Whether a virtual world of digital bits or a physical world of concrete and steel, we are building a Big Toy of a civilization. We are using up that Big Toy while we play and building another on top of it. The fun of the game is to remember that it is a game, and winning is just another name for the willingness to play the game, to give it everything you have got — all your energy, intelligence and gusto — and to be all used up when the game is done.

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