"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 14, 2013

Failure

In an article in The Guardian (10.14.13) Heather Long writes about how she wishes more people would record their failures on their resumes. This, she argues, would give a more accurate picture of the true character of the applicant.  The examples she gives, however, have little to do with real failure – losing your shirt, making horrendous personnel decisions that come back to bite you, errors of judgment, sins, and moral failings.  One high-powered woman, for example, cited the fact that the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper she owned went bust for lack of capital; and the lessons learned from this difficult experience would be valuable for her future employer. Another woman, a colleague of Long’s, is a successful writer, has had her works produced for the theatre, and is on Board of Directors of a well-known state arts council; but admits that application after application was turned down.   Long herself is rightfully proud of the fact that she was a Rhodes Scholar, but likes to modestly temper the achievement by reminding employers that she applied for two other prestigious fellowships but was rejected. 

These examples are disingenuous at best.  The women cited blow their own horns while admitting what everyone else knows – in a competitive world luck plays an important role.  Harvard won’t take you but Princeton will because one of the admissions staff also grew up shoeless and cracker in Appalachia. Yale is missing just one gay, Jewish woman from the Midwest to round out their ideal diversity profile. Goldman Sachs likes the fact that your father was a famous big-time investor called The King of Swaps on the Street while Morgan Stanley, still stung by derivatives gone bad, would prefer a cleaner slate. It is no particular credit to have been turned down by some of the finest Wall Street banks and to have secured a place in another; or to have had a success rate of under 5 percent on resume submissions but finally making it big. A great baseball player with a lifetime average of .300 has failed 70 percent of the time. ‘Failure’ is par for the course.

I know many people who have really failed in their professional career.  They have made stupid decisions.  They misread corporate signals, spoke out of turn, took foolish risks, grossly overrated their own abilities, and were fired.

A former colleague was as smart as a whip, a graduate of the best colleges and graduate schools, and with a fine family pedigree.  “Mr. George”, he was told by one Wall Street firm, “we know you are smart and talented, but are you hungry?”.  The recruiting officer had smelled too much of the waffly non-profit in Tom George and correctly sensed that he was too soft for corporate warfare.  He had failed entirely in matching his talents, abilities, and personal character to appropriate jobs.  Time and time again he was turned down until finally he gave in and joined a do-good charity which worked in India.  He always felt that he was a failure, and the last thing he wanted to do as he foundered in the missionary world, was confess.

Another colleague simply couldn’t keep his mouth shut and yakked on incessantly in interviews.  He had never learned the art of the silver tongue and the value of charm, deference, and politeness.  He was a good, solid professional once he got the chance, but the only one he ever got was at a third-tier university as a lieutenant to a much dumber superior.

I supervised younger colleagues who couldn’t put a logical paragraph together if their lives depended on it; and after I fired them, they were rejected again and again. Before ushering them out the door I explained that they would never get another job unless they learned to think more clearly, organize their thoughts, and write them in a coherent way.  Some were the product of a miserable education, others of dysfunctional families, others were just plain dumb; but whatever the reasons, they were doomed to failure. Filling their resumes with an honest appraisal of their congenital lack of brains, their intellectual vacuity, and piss-poor educational record would never do.

Failure is not a bad word in Silicon Valley.  On the contrary, it is a badge of honor; but it is awarded not to the misfits and professional laggards, but to the risk-takers who understand that in the highly competitive IT world innovation gets rewarded a million-fold and that failure indeed prepares one for the next creative venture.  Wall Street traders have incredibly bad days with tens of millions lost in a few hours; but they learn from their mistakes.  They put more edge into their sales pitches, become more aggressive and no-holds-barred in their interactions, and learn how to smell weakness and to exploit it.

A successful start-up is a function of many factors – energy, commitment, vision, management, and capital among others.  If an entrepreneur has done everything but investors got jittery and pulled the plug too early, he has not failed.  In a company where I recently worked the business model was based on a 30 percent win rate.  Bid on everything that comes down the Government sluice, lose far more than you win, but still end up more profitable than more selective companies.  Most of us wrote losing proposals, but were never criticized because the overall rate of wins was acceptable.  Moreover, everyone knew that the USAID proposal reviewers couldn’t even tie their own shoes, so winning was more an accident than a reward for quality.

Even more disingenuous is Heather Long’s tribute to Jill Abramson, New York Times Executive Editor, who admitted that when she was Washington Bureau Chief she did not pursue the government more on the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  In other words, she admitted failure, but from an unassailable perch.  She had risen to the top of the Times ladder through talent, brains, and ambition, and could admit errors of omission without recrimination or criticism.  It would have been a much different story had she told another potential employer – The Guardian, for example – that she had totally fucked up, got snookered by Donald Rumsfeld and his claques, and had exhibited the worst possible failings of a journalist.

Long notes that most employers today are asking applicants to tell of their failures, explain their weak points, and suggest what needs fixing.  Of course even the thickest candidate will lie through his teeth and avoid any mention of his latent alcoholism, anger management classes, or a dyslexic inability to add properly. Weakness in this context means being only a tad off plumb or having a slight blemish on trophy successes - a five-point buck instead of a six. Basically the exercise of self-evaluation is pure horse shit.

Everyone learns from his failures. ‘Once burned, twice shy’ is still a good rule to live by; and if we didn’t gain from experience, we would never get past first base. Admitting the potholes we fell into or the blind alleys we went down doesn’t do anyone any good.  If you have learned to watch where you are going a bit more carefully, that’s enough.  You don’t have to trumpet it around town.

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