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F.U.N. News Issue #2

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Failing To Succeed

By Billy Greer

Our society puts so much emphasis on winning that it leads to a lot of failure and mediocrity. If at first this seems paradoxical, lets look at it a different way. If the message is that winning and succeeding are good, then the unspoken corollary is that losing and failing are bad. Unfortunately, when people concentrate on trying to avoid failure rather than trying to succeed, problems arise. Just look at the following examples to see how this can happen.

The difference between trying not to fail, and trying to succeed first became clear to me in my younger years when I was in a wrestling tournament. My first opponent was someone I thought was several weight classes above me. He looked twice as strong as me and I couldn't believe we were the same weight. I was worried about losing before I stepped out on the mat, but I made up my mind I was going to try my best not to lose to this guy. By the end of the first period I was way behind, and my opponent had demonstrated that he was more than strong enough to push me around at will. My coach warned me that I was trying so hard not to lose, that I could never win the match. I realized he was right. In trying not to lose, I was being very defensive and conservative. I was so afraid of making a mistake that would cause me to lose that I was overlooking the mistakes my opponent was making. I was already losing, so I was willing to take more risks in the next period. I ended up pinning my opponent to win the match by using a move I had been afraid to try earlier.

Success and failure are not always as clear cut as in a wrestling match. Apparent successes can actually be failures when risk is avoided. A small company that was struggling financially was bought by a new company. It was rumored that the new owner would have to lay off a few workers in order to return the company to profitability. The only person who felt confident about retaining her job was Nora, in the Credit Department. She had a perfect record. In 15 years of approving credit for clients, she had never had any uncollected funds. She had a real knack for identifying clients who would be good credit risks.

She was the first person to be laid off. The new owner recognized that Nora had the wrong idea about the "risk" in managing credit risks. In an industry where the norm was to have 1% of sales defaulted on, Nora was turning away a lot of potentially good clients to maintain her perfect record. By loosening the requirements for credit, sales could be increased enough to restore the company to profitability and more than make up for a small percentage of uncollected bills.

Why do major innovations so rarely come from large companies that have more money for research than small companies? Fear of failure. Univac pioneered the computer, but lost an early lead to IBM. Univac's careful market analysis predicted that by the year 2000, only about 1000 computers total would be in use. Why waste money on a product with no real market? Fortunately, IBM didn't have the benefit of spending money on the same market research and was willing to take a chance on computers. Unfortunately, by 1959 IBM was a successful company less willing to take chances. That's when Haloid approached them for help in completing and introducing a plain paper copier. IBM hired a consulting company to do extensive financial and market analysis on the copier market. The study predicted that only a total of 5,000 such machines could ever be sold, so IBM declined to get involved. Within eight years, Haloid had changed its name to Xerox, and had sold almost 200,000 copiers.

In "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," by Richard Wurman, Jim Burke of Johnson & Johnson is quoted recounting one of his own experiences with a failure.

I once developed a new product that failed badly, and General Johnson called me in, and I was sure he was going to fire me . . . Johnson said to me, I understand you lost over a million dollars. And I said, Yes sir. That's correct. So he stood up and held out his hand. He said, I just want to congratulate you. All business is making decisions, and if you don't make decisions, you won't have any failures. The hardest job I have is getting people to make decisions. If you make that same decision wrong again, I'll fire you. But I hope you'll make a lot of others, and that you'll understand there are going to be more failures than successes.

In another chapter, Wurman writes:

Children are masters at spontaneous, incisive questions, and they use this effective tool for acquiring information. However, somewhere along the way of growing up, this inquisitiveness gets squashed—by parents, by teachers, by a growing self-consciousness that prompts us to be wary of appearing uninformed.

Quality gurus exhort companies to empower their employees and to "drive out fear." Taking away the stigma of failure encourages risk taking, and risk taking is essential to improvement. Almost all major innovations and advancements involve going against the conventional wisdom, facing the ridicule of the "experts," and failing many times before finally succeeding.

wpeF.jpg (3290 bytes)Why do adults often have a more difficult time with computers than kids? Fear of failure. Adults are afraid of breaking something. They are afraid of screwing up a program, or deleting everything on the computer if they do something wrong. Worst of all, they are afraid of admitting they know nothing about computers, or of not being able to do something that any 8 year old could do. Kids don't have those same fears. They usually don't realize they can hurt anything, so they fearlessly experiment and quickly pick up the basics by trial and error. If something doesn't work right the first time, they just try something different. They expect to make mistakes when they try something they've never done before, and they don't expect to be ridiculed for their mistakes.

Allow your children to learn that failure is an acceptable consequence of trying something new, that it can be an opportunity to learn, and that it is frequently a steppingstone to eventual success. In a recent article by author Tom Peters, family psychologist John Rosemond is quoted as writing that the "most effective parents are those who are relaxed rather than constantly busy in their children's lives . . .. They let their children make mistakes, realizing that the most valuable lessons in life are learned through trial and error." It's not too late for you and your children to learn to succeed by failing.

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