By Steve Fisher
Just wondering, when Japanese baseball great Ichiro Suzuki strikes out (which he’s done 1,037 times) does he go weepy weepy and pout in a corner of the dugout? No, he doesn’t. He walks confidently back to his seat, and mentally prepares to take the field.
When basketball legend and all around awesome human being Michael Jordan missed a shot (and he missed more than 9,000), did he cry and sulk around the court until the ball was in his hands again? Of course not. Without missing a single beat in the lightening fast rhythm of an NBA game, his mind was focused on the next play.
Or how about inspiring business magnate, adventurer and philanthropist Richard Branson? The Virgin founder has actually experienced a lot more and bigger setbacks than most people, including multiple near bankruptcies and several near-death experiences. After a business or personal failure, does he drown his sorrow in a bottle of Scotch? No, he learns from the experience, and quickly moves on.
I think you know where I’m going with this – in all walks of life, high performers actually “fail” a lot. And, the way they think and act in response to these setbacks offers valuable insights for all of us.
Successful people actually fail a lot more, and often more spectacularly, than other people. Michael Jordan was more successful than most NBA players partly because he took a lot more shots (which includes many more misses than most players). As a child and teenager in Japan, Ichiro practiced hitting for hours everyday with his father and coaches. Does anyone believe that all of his swings went well?
Seven of the ten best selling books of all time are Harry Potter books, but author J.K. Rowling was rejected countless times before finally finding a publisher for the first volume in the series. Think about all the talented but unpublished writers who shrink away from the challenge after a rejection or two. Rowling and other published writers are more successful, in part, because of their willingness to accept failure as natural and necessary, and move on.
This idea that failure is good and more failure is better is not at all original and, while I love this perspective, one of the challenges I felt with this post was whether I could say anything new and interesting about it.
I think that one promising new way to think about the relationship between failure and high achievement is the arc of human development, from newborn baby to the peak of adulthood. In ways not unlike high performers, children “fail” a lot and have a positive approach to setbacks.
They endlessly fail at walking before they manage to actually walk. They blubber incoherently for months before even one intelligible word comes out of their mouth. They are only able to ride a bike after months of training wheels and countless crashes, while their anxious, adoring parents look on. Multiplication tables are mastered only after weeks of mostly misses (and this is true of even future mathematicians!). On recess and in phys ed class, the ball almost never goes into the hoop in the beginning (and this is true of even future Michael Jordans). In fact, children “fail” at virtually everything before they succeed. If we think about it, the childhood phase of human development is essentially a period of continuous failure, in a wide variety of areas, heavily supervised by parents, teachers, coaches and the like.
Some people’s development arcs higher than others, of course. After reaching adulthood why do some people soar a lot higher than others? What is it that separates Ichiro Suzuki, Michael Jordan, Richard Branson and other high performers from most people?
In large part, I think, it’s because they are much more willing to fall flat on their face.
In ways surprisingly similar to high performers, children are really good at failure and usually have a great attitude about it. They are really good at picking themselves up and trying again. Most adults, on the other hand, fear failure way more than we should, and we lack the proper outlook when it inevitably happens.
Why is it that most adults lose this ability, which all children have, to keep failing (and keep growing)?
My personal feeling is that it’s at least in part due to our evolutionary history. For most of human history, if we ventured even a bit outside of our comfort zone, we could be devoured by a predator or attacked by a hostile neighboring tribe. An instinct for caution is encoded in our DNA and embedded in the ancient, reptilian core of our brain. For much of humanity’s past, an excess of caution kept us alive.
Now though, in most of our lives, what’s the absolute worst that can happen? A few awkward moments at a party when we say hello to someone new? A rejection from our boss when we propose a new project? Even with larger business and personal projects, the potential downside is usually not that bad. But too often we’re ruled by that primitive lizard brain, which focuses primarily on not dying, and not at all on prospering. Immensely valuable in the past, this deep human bias toward fear and over-caution is now an obstacle that frequently stands in our way.
Life will be richer and more interesting if we keep some of a child’s curiosity and enthusiasm to jump into something new. And, their openness to falling down repeatedly, and quickly getting back up again.
I think that one of the biggest things that sets high performers apart is that they have retained this childlike openness to continuously trying and failing at something, before they succeed even once. And then continuing to fail repeatedly before learning to do it well.
High performers not only fail more often, they have a much better way of thinking about failure. Low achievers often take a setback to mean they can’t do something, and give up. High achievers know that the way to do something well – the only way to do something well – is to try and fail repeatedly.
Another word for this is practice. Endless. Disciplined. Focused. Practice.
The Michael Jordan quote at the beginning of this post is my favorite of all time because I think it’s such a fabulous way to think about life. Everyone fails, and high achievers fail the most! Most importantly, they have a much better way of thinking about failure. In my own professional and personal projects, I find these insights endlessly useful, and remind myself of them or cite them admiringly the way religious people quote scripture.
If a business initiative doesn’t go my way, when a girl doesn’t want to go out with me, when I write a terrible draft of a post for this blog, I’ll say to myself, “That’s okay, Michael Jordan missed shots”. Or,“Don’t worry about it, Ichiro strikes out”.
Believe me, I say these things to myself a lot! And I find it such a profoundly useful way to think about life.
Neither of the photos in this post are my own.