The Trouble with Success

Given the choice between career success and career failure I’ll likely take success. Heck I’m like anyone else; who do you know who hates succeding?

The trouble with success – one of many – is that most of your learning comes from the bumps of failure, not the sweetness of accomplishment. The biggest derailer in my experience as an executive coach is a lack of smaller mistakes and failure early in someone’s career. When mistakes come later, stakes are higher, and execs have farther to fall. As Carl Robinson notes in his post “Five Fatal Flaws – How to Derail Your Career,the #1 career derailer is a failure to learn from mistakes. It is tough, at the minimum, to learn if your early experience is mostly success.

When you combine great early success with the financial rewards that can often accompany it, you’ve long two parts of the formula for long term disaster. Alexander Carlisle and later Thomas Andrews, designers of the Titanic (and the seldom mentioned sister ship, the Olympic), didn’t fail because they had been previously unsuccessful. They failed because they’d been successful, and lulled themselves into thinking they could anticipate any problem and build an unsinkable ship. One maiden voyage and a tragic collision with a large iceberg later, the word “Titanic” as a term for disaster entered our lexicon.

Fast forward 96 years and you can see the success-breeding-failing lineage of Carlisle and Andrews in the designers of the “risks understood” mortgage back securities / collateral debt obligations debacle that almost brought the world Great Depression 2.0.

Apart from the habit of engendering a sense of infallibility, success can “fence jump” – you believe the attributes that worked in one domain apply to others. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, dubbed the accidental zillionaire by Wired Magazine in 1994, may be Exhibit A, though he has lots of company in this regard. Allen left Microsoft in 1983 to deal with health issues and never returned to an operating role. The success of Microsoft by many is credited to Bill Gates efforts. Allen, largely from his early work with Microsoft, has a net worth estimated at $18B. [Wired: “His wealth is a lucky trick of time and place, and particularly of his involvement with Bill Gates.”]

The purpose of this post is not to pick on Paul Allen, a man whose generous lifetime charitable givings are estimated to be close to $1B. His story of success leading to a highly mixed record elsewhere is not unusual and there are any number of others that have followed a similar path.

What his story is, however, is instructive; it provides a road map for the pitfalls of early success, and the landmines that can befall recipients of that type of good fortune.  His investment vehicle, Vulcan Capital, has a very choppy record. The sport teams he owns, including the US professional football Seattle Seahawks and the National Basketball Association Portland Trailblazers, have been mediocre under his watch. His personnel dealings have been very bumpy: after 7 months the new president of Vulcan Capital left late last year. Last week Allen fired the Portland Trailblazer’s General Manager Kevin Pritchard in, according to ESPN, “the most humbling way possible”- one hour before the annual new player draft. And so on, and so on.

Long term success, like trophies in sports, is something that takes work, trying, and smarts. As Paul Cazano wrote about Paul Allen in an article titled Paul Allen is an Owner Who Refuses to Take Ownership, “Championships don’t happen by accident.” Neither does enduring success.

Finally, the trouble with success, as noted in this piece from NASA, is that “you may never know how close to failure you came.”  You chalk up the accomplishment and move on, seldom dwelling on the learnings that would have come with a more negative outcome.

The list of people who failed big early and came back to be highly successful is long;

  • Winston Churchill failed 6th grade, and was defeated in every run for office until he was 62.
  • Charles Darwin gave up his medical career, and was considered by his father to be below the standard of general intellect.
  • Henry Ford failed and went broke 5 times before he succeeded.
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Jordan’s take? “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That’s why I succeed.
  • Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and new ideas.”
  • 27 publishers rejected Dr. Seuss’ first book.

Cut to the chase: Early success can dull vision, create hubris, and blind you to your real abilities. A little failure early is not such a bad thing and if you have a choice, it’s far better to learn early than learn late in your career. Emerging research by Carol Dweck, Anders Eriksson and Angela Duckworth show that success is in the trying (and learning multiple strategies), the perseverance, time spent at a pursuit, and in the persistence.

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.