How to Succeed? Try and Fail! And Try Again.

Albert Einstein noted “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

So what’s up with the craving for the sweet smell of success people that people are determined to avoid the taint  of failure?

Biotech CEO Robert Johnson told me that when he did business development at Lilly he was paid to bring deals forward for the firm to consider. Today, he believes, BD people are paid to avoid risks, and vet deals so they won’t happen.

Research from people like Carol Dweck and Anders Ericsson demonstrates that high performance comes from the trying and doing – not simply “innate” talent that someone has. Success comes about through time, perseverance, and understanding which strategies work, and which ones do not. It does not mean you are risky – simply that you understand what the risk / success ratio looks like.

Celebrating failure, as Max Levchin one of my favorite younger CEOs has observed is a dumb idea.Learn from it rather than avoid avoiding it. Failure is a function of trying new things. As Oscar Wilde noted, “Experience is the name we give our mistakes.”

The difference between simply celebrating and learning is that with the latter you take attempts you know have risk to see what happens, and to learn from any failures. As fellow cyclist Levchin knows, anytime you ride you have risks – flat tires, cars, etc. You learn from then. So when I had a blowout on my bike tearing down Mount Tam I learned that those things can happen, and to be prepared for them. When my titanium seat bolt broke – something it’s not supposed to do – I learned how to ride a long distance without a seat. Max is right; you’d don’t celebrate, but you do learn.

In my 25+ years coaching executives and working with start-up and leadership teams, those that perform well are the ones that repeatedly take measured risks, and learn from their failures. They succeed because of their failures, not in spite of their failures. Steve Jobs may be Exhibit A for learning from your mistakes and failure during his time after being dumped from Apple in the 1980’s . As the NY Times noted in a piece titled “What Steve Jobs Learned in the Wilderness,”  “But the Jobs of the mid-1980’s probably never could have made Apple what it is today if he hadn’t embarked on a torment-filled business odyssey.”

“A willingness to fail gives you the ability to succeed” Vinod Khosla (good Commonwealth Club speech link) has noted. “I’m not afraid to fail. I just don’t want to succeed in a way that’s not material.” Khosla encourages – channeling his inner basketball superstar LeBron James, to “Take more shots, and go.”

James ability to make those amazing full court basketball shots is born of countless hours working hard, trying, missing, and refining his shots.

So try, and fail. Try again and fail. Try and succed.

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). J. Mike Smith is a San Franciosco-based career, executive and team coach with an international practice. 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 at WhoHub, as well as participate in a learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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