Training wheels

Training wheels sound so great in concept. After all, they remove all the risk from learning to ride a bike.

But, they don’t work.

It turns out that removing all the risk of losing balance doesn’t teach us the most important ability required to ride a bike – how to balance. And, that, in turn, also means we don’t actually learn to ride the bike. Worse, it hinders our ability to learn without training wheels.

Risk and reward go together. Falling down is an important part of learning. And, we only make progress when we embrace the possibility of a fall.

Why, then, do we use training wheels? Fear of failure.

And, that’s thanks to a misunderstanding. You see, failure is not the falling down, it is the staying down.

Are you failing enough? – MBA Learnings

I thought about this morning’s post a few times. I had a learning in queue that I had been thinking about from our Microeconomics class this week. But, I decided to shelve that this week and write about something that is top of mind – failure. That also leads me to the other related thought – when I’d first thought of the “MBA Learnings” series, it wasn’t just to share learnings from class. It was also to really touch upon life in business school and share my thought process as I approached it.

One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is – am I failing enough? I ask myself this question for a few reasons. First, it is because I think there is a strong connection between failure and learning. I have come to realize that the biggest by-product of success is self confidence. Yes, if you are smart, you will sit down and discuss what went well. And, yes, you will learn a lot from it. But, when you fail, you don’t have anything else to hold onto except learning. That’s powerful. Second, it is because failure helps guard against complacency. There is no mechanism that makes you eat humble pie as much as failure. I think that’s incredibly important because humility is what keeps us in touch with reality. And, it is people who really understand reality that are able to drive change and do something with it.

I received a few texts from a friend last night that I saw as I woke up. He shared that a project he’d been working on had failed. He said – “I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.” I could feel his disappointment. But, I also thought that was a great way to think about it. Even if we’re working in a team that has a share in our failures, the best way to think about failure, in my opinion, is to start with the “I.” Sure, you can blame everyone and everything around you. Sure, the circumstances must have been extenuating. But, you played a part. And you have to own it.

I say this because I’ve spent the last two days reflecting on a project I consider very important. And, after a few weeks of intense effort, I feel I’ve made a large enough collection of mistakes to slow down and reflect. We’re in a creative stage of the process and I’ve enjoyed this stage and have experimented heavily. The nature of experimentation is that a few work and most do not. And, every once in a while, the collection of experiments that don’t work threaten to overshadow the ones that do. And, I think I am at one such point – a real learning moment. I woke up at 4 this morning and spent the last hour and a half putting these thoughts together. This isn’t the first such learning moment of course.

It made me remember a moment 5 years ago now when we were in the early stages of putting together a team for what felt like an audacious project as a university student – to put together a new university version of Britain’s Got Talent (inspired by the Susan Boyle moment) and to do so despite not having an assurance that we’d have enough funding to pull it off. We had only secured 30% of the funds required, had no venue, and had just begun putting together a small team. 2 weeks into working with the team, I received an email from one of the team members asking to withdraw. I went back to that this morning and thought I’d share a small part that I still remember –

Also the entire experience of working (together ?) in this student based team has not been completely great either. Yes, you might claim to model this on the real life workplace environment, but once again I fail to see true justifications for certain aspects. While I do understand from our brief interactions, that leadership skills are what are being aimed for by each of you, I have to admit, that I was not really motivated to look up to you as a person who could lead us to work for <> (maybe because I failed to see the part of ‘lead by example’ coming in anywhere).

Following this note, 2 others withdrew.  Oh, it hurt. There’s something to be said for moments when people around you look at you and say (either verbally or not) that you’re not deserving of their trust.

That definitely was a learning moment.

But, I also know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that, the eventual success wouldn’t have occurred without such moments. They’re painful in the short term but meaningful in the long term. And, five years later, I can say with a lot of certainty that I look back at these moments with a smile.

I find myself facing new kinds of challenges today. It has been a challenge finding the time to reflect amidst two packed days. This stuff doesn’t happen when you are sitting idle and looking for things to think about. I guess that’s what is great about waking up early and getting some time to yourself. After two days of thinking about it, I think I’ve finally understood where the problems lie. And, I realize I’m going to approach it as I normally do – own up to my mistakes, be open about my intentions and have a conversation.

That goes back to my original question – Am I failing enough? Before I answer that, I’d just like to say that this is what I’ve loved about the MBA experience. You have a huge number of opportunities to experiment, learn and fail. There’s only so much you can fail at work – there are way too many things at stake (most of all, your own job). But, I’m now in a place where I’m paying a couple of hundred thousand dollars to learn and I intend to make the most of that. The new Kellogg rebranding led to the “inspiring growth” tag-line. That’s easier said than done, of course. Growth can be painful because it requires you to experiment, fail and learn. But, is it worth it? Absolutely.

And, as of this morning, I definitely think I am failing. And, I am fortunate to be in an environment that allows me to fail spectacularly. It is occasionally painful but I’m glad for the opportunity.

The half-life of a failure

I heard back on 2 project outcomes yesterday – one went really well and one didn’t go so well. Guess which one I woke up thinking about?

The half-life of a failure is much much longer than the half-life of a success. So, the question then becomes – is there a way around it? Here’s how I think about it –

In the short term, I’m not sure there is. Successes and failures are a part of life and we have to learn to accept that failures stay longer with us. We expect negative emotions very intensely. There is no getting around that and you aren’t going to change your response overnight.

In the medium term, there are a few ideas that can help. The first is to develop a coping mechanism. I have developed two coping mechanisms that tend to help me. First, I give myself a certain stretch of time (depending on the size of the failure) to play victim. And I allow myself to kick myself and curse things a bit. Once I’m done with playing victim, I think about I learnt from the process and write about it. This part enables me to look back at the process that led to the outcome, draw my own conclusions about what went wrong and look forward to things that I should do better. The beautiful part of writing a daily blog that talks about seeing failures as learnings is that failures help me keep a steady pipeline of content. That’s not a bad outcome.

And, finally, in the long term, I see it as a part of a quest to become more zen – to accept the things I cannot change and focus intensely on the things I can. Every minute spent on a past result is a minute taken away from a future process, after all. I know this but it doesn’t make executing on it any easier.

As you can tell, I am in the “medium term” bit. This process has taken me about 6 years to internalize. Let’s hope I’ll be writing about the long term part 6 years from now. 🙂

Success, failure, laziness, learning

I’m sure you’ve heard about or asked that famous question – do we learn more from success or failure?

Let’s put that question on hold for a moment for a quick question – I had submitted two assignments recently. I scored well on one and didn’t score well on the other. Guess which one I wanted to review?

This isn’t uncommon – the issue with debriefing after success is that there is almost no patience to make them meaningful. A debrief after a failure feels like a necessary post-mortem. A debrief after success feels like attempts to delay the party. Success, in short, makes us lazy and complacent. It makes us want to celebrate and then come back and get the next success (sometimes without putting in the work). Reflections after success can be as rich as those from failure. Just because failure makes learning seem more important doesn’t mean that it is. Perhaps that is why discipline is often cited as a key success ingredient – it takes discipline to overcome the resistance and get on with the reflection and learning.

And, of course, we can avoid the whole discussion by learning to ignore the result and focus hard on the process. Good decisions and a good process => good results in the long run. Reflecting on the process is an easier habit to instill and your process can almost always get a bit better. That’s when it stops being about winning and losing. A process focus is all about the playing.

Welcome to the infinite game.

What if I fail?

That toxic force, the fear of failure, thrives on being avoided. It kills initiative, destroys happiness, and encourages inaction. And, yet, it prefers we don’t talk about it or think about it.

So, the next time you feel its power, ask yourself – what if I fail? Write down your thoughts as you answer the question.

What if the person turns down my hand of friendship?
What if that company says no to my cover letter?
What if that group rejects the idea?
What if I try and lose?
What if she says no?

It is not that bad. It is never that bad. Sometimes, it is even fantastic and liberating.

Sure, we need boundaries. But, I’d argue that we could do with more risk and less status-quo today. We live better lives when we drive and embrace change. And, when we live better lives, we make the world a better place.

And, even if we did fail in that attempt, it’s okay. We’ll learn. We’ll get better. We’ll try again tomorrow.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.


What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


 

Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

Notes
– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on rohan@rohanrajiv.com if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

Is failure bad?

Nikki Durkin, founder of 99dresses,  had a great post up today on the failure of her start-up. She describes the crazy journey in great detail and talks about her emotions following the failure.

“Most startups fail, and yet this industry doesn’t talk about failure nearly enough. I’d encourage anyone who has failed to write about how it felt, as I can’t tell you how much that would have helped me in those final months & weeks. I just wanted someone to relate to. Instead, I was left feeling isolated and ashamed.”

I was thinking about failure this morning as a few people had commented to one of my teammates on the Real Leaders Project that our “yeah, we quit” post felt negative. That is the exact opposite emotion I felt as I posted that. Somehow, the feeling was one of relief. We tried something, we screwed up, and we felt it was time to move on. Ours was only a weekend project in the grand scheme of things and yet, there was negativity associated with our failure to make it work.

In some ways, I can empathize with how Nikki must feel after 4 years of investment of sweat and tears. I can’t say I understand completely as I haven’t gone through the same experience myself – certainly not nearly at the intensity and magnitude of her experience. I have failed a fair bit though and can feel a part of her pain.

So, is failure good or bad? I think it is neither. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical, it just is. It is an event. It happens to most of us and to some a lot more than to others. Many pay the idea of celebrating failure lip service. They only celebrate failure if/when it leads to eventual success. That’s when you are lauded and celebrated for having persisted.

Me? I take a different view. I think an event can only be termed as a failure if you didn’t grow through the experience. Yes, Nikki’s start-up may have failed but I would term her experience a success – she’s grown through it, learnt a heck of a lot more about herself than many would over a lifetime, and has set herself up for a lot of happiness in the years to come. Joy wouldn’t feel good if it wasn’t for pain after all and it takes a few hard experience to really understand how good a life we lead. It also takes one to know one and I’m sure she’ll be a source of great encouragement and support to entrepreneurs all over the world.

Nikki, thanks for your heartfelt post. It matters. It made me think. And, as you might tell from this slightly scattered collection of thoughts, I’m still thinking. This blog has been built on the belief that you don’t fail, you only learn. And, in that spirit, you’ve made a big difference sharing your story for us all to learn from. And that’s success in my book.