Career Track: When is a Good Loss Better than Ho-Hum Success?

Oregon Ducks mascot at Cal.

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Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyewski (pronounced /ʃəˈʃɛvski/shə-SHEV-ski) once noted after his Blue Devils got beat, “We lost, and that’s the main thing that went wrong.”

Hopefully you take have a little more introspection than the storied (and highly successful) Coach K. The fact of the matter is that losses – bumps in your smooth career road – are the types of things that likely boost your career downstream if two things happen: 1) the bumps mostly occur earlier in your career rather than later, and 2) you have the smarts to learn from them.

Leadership wonk Warren Bennis of the University of Southern California in his book Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader has suggested that you learn more from a bad boss than a good one. Stanford’s Bob Sutton agrees, and quotes Carol Bartz in a post from her interview in the New York Times as saying “When you have a bad manager you have to look at what’s irritating you and say: “Would I do that? Would I make those choices? Would I talk to me that way? How would I do this?

Hiccups in work, not just bosses, can provide the same learning opportunities. When they happen earlier in your career you have the good fortune of time and recovery. Late in your career? Not so much time for recovery.

Bennis suggests that there are four lessons of self-knowledge for leaders:

  1. You are your own best teacher
  2. Accept responsibility: blame no-one
  3. You can learn from anything you want to learn
  4. True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience

While we should, most unfortunately generally fail to do something simple like a post-mortem when things work. There is no, “Gee, I got dial tone; how did that work?” Losses – those bumps – give us the chance to figure out what worked, and what we’d do differently. Carol Dweck’s research, that life is about perseverance and trying different strategies, supports that approach. Hard to know what to do different if everything you do works.

The University of Oregon [Disclosure: I mostly grew up in Oregon] men’s football team lost a bang-up game for the national collegiate championship 22-19 last week to the University of Auburn. “When it comes down to a field goal at the last second, you can always point to play here, a play there, but it really doesn’t do much for you,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “We’re a forward-thinking operation, and we’ll learn from this thing and move forward.”

Losses, bumps and other negative experiences, it turns out, are rich for learning. “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up” said Vince Lombardi. You hopefully get those bumps that knock you down earlier in your career, get back up, and are smart enough to go to school on them.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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