Fringe Benefits of Failure
Failure happens. To those who want to pretend that failure doesn’t exist, and that every story has a happy ending, this declaration may sound a little harsh. We tell our children that hard work is the key to achieving their dreams as if we have the ability to speak their success into existence. We know that all of us are subject to failure, but we have been conditioned to be so fearful of it that to tell our children that they will fail is to rub salt in the wounds of our own past failures. We want a better future for them; a future without failures that afflict our children with wounds of their own, but unless the very foundation of our world completely changes, failure will continue to happen. To admit inevitable failure is to admit everlasting struggle, and to admit everlasting struggle is to identify with underlying weakness. If there is one thing worth noting about the human race, it is that we are all terrified of our own weakness. Throughout history, we have valued our physical and mental capabilities above everything, beginning with the ancient idea that “only the strong survive” and manifesting itself into today’s idyllic American Dream. We think that we have total control, that as long as we just keep working we will survive and thrive. But throw failure into the mix and we all feel like our weakness will bring nothing but the death of our pride. At any moment, our failure could turn the dream into a nightmare.
In our fear of failure, we have a problem, but in her book The Upside of Down, business-major-turned-journalist Megan McArdle offers a simple but profound solution. Perhaps failure can be a good thing, provided that we take what we have learned from it and use it to change our situations for the better. McArdle does not say this as someone leading a charmed life and looking down on the unwashed masses of failure-ridden ne’er-do-wells called modern society. She is no stranger to failure, calling herself “the Mozart of misfortune, the Paganini of poor luck” (McArdle xi). As she relays in her book, she has been laid off from a number of jobs, failed to take her sick mother to the hospital until after her appendix had ruptured, had her boyfriend of several years propose to her and then tell her two days later that he had changed his mind, and had to deal with the initial disapproval of her parents when taking her $80,000 business degree and pursuing a career with an income that, as she says, “was roughly similar to the expected value of becoming addicted to crack” (McArdle 80). McArdle did go on to have success, as evidenced in her job as a journalist working first with The Atlantic and most recently with The Economist, and of course in her bestselling book. She says that her failures are a part of who she is, and that her failure in obtaining a job with her business degree led to her becoming a writer. We are told to live in the moment, but McArdle would agree that failures and things beyond our control can make the moment seem bleak. Instead we must assess our current situation and decide what changes must be made for a better future.
It is often said that in order to have success, we must “begin with the end in mind.” McArdle did just this when she made the decision to abandon her business degree in favor of becoming a journalist. She knew that with the state of the economy at the time, the odds of landing a steady job were slim, and in the process of her job hunting she had begun investing freetime into a blog. The more she wrote, the more she realized that that was what she really wanted to do, so she decided to redirect her attention to journalism jobs, using her blog as a sort of online portfolio. She knew she was taking a big risk, with an unconventional portfolio and a degree that did not line up with her chosen field, but the risk paid off when her business knowledge became her saving grace in landing her a job at the online publication The Economist. It also turned out that her blog portfolio was another selling point for employers because it showed her skills in an online format. McArdle’s risk to reward story proves that although failure will happen to all of us, it is most likely not the end of all successes. Sometimes stepping away from one dream to pursue an even better one is the key to finding not just success but also true joy.
In her book Disrupt Yourself, Whitney Johnson provides a seven-step outline of the disruption process. A term coined by her current business partner Clay Christenson, Johnson states that “disruptive innovation… describe[s] an innovation at the low end of the market that eventually upends an industry” (Johnson 106). There is no doubt that Megan McArdle did this in changing careers, but Johnson did this with a change of her own. Upon moving to New York in 1989 so that her husband could earn his PhD in molecular biology at Columbia, Johnson needed to find a way to pay their bills. She had a music degree in piano, but had no way of using her talent to find stable employment. She started out as a secretary for a retail sales broker in Manhattan and soon caught the Wall Street bug. After she proved herself in the field by taking business classes at night and working her way up the employment ladder, Johnson became one of the big names on Wall Street, her influence so widespread that, as she says, “I had large financial institutions like Fidelity Investments asking for my financial models, and when I upgraded or downgraded a stock, the stock price would frequently move several more percentage points” (Johnson 98). It seemed that Johnson’s foundation of disruption had reached its peak, but she was not yet finished. Bored with her current situation and ready for a new challenge, Johnson left her high-paying job as an equity analyst at Merrill Lynch in 2005 to spread her wings in the entrepreneurial world. It was no easy feat, and many of her colleagues considered her insane for leaving when things were going so well. But Johnson and her business partner knew that when trying something new, it was bound to get harder before it got easier. They attributed this to what Johnson calls “the S-curve” (Johnson 145).
Otherwise known as “why a growth curve will stay flat for so long and then rocket upward suddenly, only to eventually plateau again” (Johnson 154), the S-curve represents a disruptor’s growth in their new endeavors. The beginning of the process is the bottom of the “S”, and because the disruptor is embarking on a new journey, the beginning often starts out slowly. There is no set time limit for the first step in this process, and it is often ridden with mistakes as new ideas and innovations are explored. Regardless of the early mistakes, hard work may eventually lead to a tipping point that kicks off a period of hypergrowth, or the upward curve of the “S”. Eventually the process reaches its full potential and plateaus, completing the “S” shape.
Because the first phase of the S-curve, or “the hard yards,” as Figure 1 identifies it, is a time of failing and learning from those failures, it is considered by most people to be an indicator of overall failure. But as the S-curve demonstrates, a time of learning from failure—or as McArdle called it in The Upside of Down “learning to fail well” (McArdle xv)—is most likely just the beginning of what will soon be hypergrowth.
This, however, does not mean that in order to achieve one must never give up on anything. In fact, the whole point of being a disruptor is turning away from the expected to try something else. As Johnson concludes, “One lesson you might learn from failure is that you are on the wrong curve for you. Famed football coach Vince Lombardi said, ‘Winners never quit.’ Marketing guru Seth Godin countered with, ‘Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time” (Johnson 1,279). Megan McArdle quit searching for a job to fit her business degree, and Whitney Johnson quit her successful Wall Street career to become an entrepreneur. One had not yet been successful in the workplace while the other was already wildly accomplished, but what did the two have in common? Neither of them were emotionally satisfied with what they were doing. It can be easy to stick with something that guarantees high pay, low risk, and no discomfort, but if you are willing to follow the seven steps of disruption as both McArdle and Johnson did, you can use what seems like failure to create new fields and have amazing successes.
The first step of the process is to take the right risks. Success is an action, and action always involves risk. The key here is to take wise risks, but it is often hard to distinguish which risks are profitable in varying situations. Jumping out of a window may seem risky and foolish, but if the building is on fire and it is the only chance of survival, then it is undoubtedly the best option. The second is to play to your distinctive strengths. Although it doesn’t seem like it, having skills seemingly unrelated to a particular job can be inherently valuable. As mentioned before, Megan McArdle’s business skills, while not necessarily needed for journalism, earned her a job at a finance-based magazine. We must being willing to do as Whitney Johnson says and “play where no one else is playing” (Johnson 379) if we want to have unconventional success. The third and fourth steps go hand in hand: embrace constraints and battle entitlement. In a world where failure abounds and life itself is a series of constraints, it can be logically stated that nothing is owed to anyone. Although these constraints can be frustrating, most are meant for our own protection, and none of us is above that. Entitlement is the kink in the garden hose of determination; like a vise grip it clamps down on all the potential for good with a creak of “Why not me?” To escape entitlement is to cast away a burden that prevents not only success, but one’s inner peace and joy. The fifth step is to step back to grow. This is the essence of being a disruptor; from the outside a step back looks like a failure, but it is often all part of a greater plan. This brings us to our sixth step, which is to give failure its due. We think that failure is something to fear and avoid. Failure is an unpleasant thing, and no one enjoys being upset or uncomfortable with their situation. But hard times bring about determination for change and appreciation for small successes. And if we follow step seven and live a discovery-led life, those small successes will abound.
Finding joy in the little things encompasses all seven steps; when we take courage in new challenges, we discover distinctive strengths. In discovering those strengths, we embrace the constraints that we have to work around and we realize that nothing is owed to us. When we know that every success comes from the work of our own hands, we understand that sometimes we have to step back and give ourselves time to rise to the challenge. And when we step back, we discover the new passions of a live of discovery. The three-strand cord of determination, joy, and failure is the common thread that runs through these seven steps and through all of our lives; it connects us at the heart and shows us that the pain of failure and the beauty of the joy found in hard-won success come together to form what is the glorious internal struggle of mankind. As soon as we learn to embrace each other’s failures, our world will be all the more unified. But before we do that, we must learn to embrace our own.
American motivational speaker Denis Waitley once said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing” (forbes.com). We try so hard to avoid failure when, in the end, it catches up to us every time. If we cannot avoid failure, then why don’t we dive into it headlong and explore? We are so afraid to let others down, as if we are the only ones to ever experience the feeling of coming up short when it matters the most. Failure is an inevitable side effect of a full and meaningful life, a life of doing something, saying something, and being something. Without failure, there is no success, for there can be no standard that does not have a contrasting opposite. And since failure and success often work together, someone who experiences one almost certainly has to experience the other. The greatest benefit of failure is that overcoming it inspires us to take chances and achieve our wildest dreams. When we admit to failure, not only do we discover who we are, but we also find a place in the tribe of the thinkers, the doers, the American Dreamers. Failure happens, but it does not define us. No matter the cost, we will prevail, because a life without failure is a life without anything. And being nothing comes at the greatest cost of all.
Johnson, Whitney. Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion, 2015. Print.
McArdle, Megan. The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success. New York City, NY: Viking, 2014. Print
Walter, Ekaterina. “30 Powerful Quotes on Failure.” Forbes Magazine, 30 December 2013, Date Accessed: 27 January 2017
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