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Nate’s Notes 25: Failing Forward

By May 19, 2022June 8th, 2023No Comments

Society loves winners. Michael Jordan is revered for winning six NBA titles. But Jordan’s greatest accomplishment, according to some, wasn’t just the six titles: others have won more. Robert Horry, who played at the same time as Jordan, won seven titles. Sam Jones won 10, and Bill Russel won 11.

Jordan’s true greatness, it’s argued, is that he never lost in the finals…he never failed when the stakes were highest. Compare that to LeBron James who went to the finals 10 times in his first 17 seasons, but lost six times in the finals. For some people, the debate about whether Jordan is better than James ends right there.

Success, including a perfect record in the finals, is celebrated for good reason. However, how we view success, and in turn failure, is worth examining. Is James inferior to Jordan for losing six times in the finals, even though James made it to the finals four more times than Jordan?

In 2016, a Princeton psychology professor, Johannes Haushofer, posted his resume on Twitter. Professors routinely post their resumes online, so at first glance, Haushofer’s post was not unusual. But then his resume went viral. Virtually every national media publication started writing stories about Haushofer. But why? Rather than posting his resume of successes and accomplishments, Haushofer had posted his resume of failures: degree programs and schools he was rejected from, awards and scholarships he didn’t win, academic positions and fellowships he didn’t get, and research funding and grants he was denied.

In a world, culture, and profession where people are advised to downplay or even hide their failures, Haushofer stood out by doing the opposite. He publicly embraced his failures in an effort to help others learn from them. Afterword Haushofer noted that his Resume of Failures got him more recognition than had all of his academic work combined.

How we view failure and respond to it, can have massive implications. And maybe no one illustrates this point better than businesswoman Sara Blakely. After finishing college, Blakely wanted to attend law school, but she failed to score high enough on the law school admission test. So she took a left turn and accepted a job at Walt Disney World. But she only lasted three months at Disney. She then transitioned to a new, unglamorous job full of failure…selling fax machines door-to-door.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. While working full time selling fax machines Blakely spent $5000 of her own savings to create shape-wear products, even though she knew virtually nothing about the industry. Investor after investor rejected Blakely’s fundraising pitch. But she kept going, and finally got a big break when Nieman Marcus agreed to sell her products. Later, Oprah included Blakely’s products in her segment “favorite things” which then led to QVC signing a deal with Blakely.

In 2012, Forbes named Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, the youngest self-made female billionaire. People persist through failures all the time. What’s especially interesting about Blakely, however, is her perception of failure: “For me,” she said, “as long as I was taking shots on goal, I was succeeding. I’ve only failed when I didn’t try because I was scared.”

Ask Blakely how she adopted this mindset, and she’ll point to simple conversations with her dad. At the dinner table each week, Blakely’s dad would ask the kids, “What did you fail at this week?” If Blakely didn’t have a story to tell, her dad would be disappointed. Reporting failure was a good thing because it meant you were trying new, challenging things…that you weren’t paralyzed by the fear of failure. It got to the point that Blakely would initiate these conversations: “Dad I tried this thing and I failed miserably,” to which her dad would high five her and proudly say, “Way to go.”

But then her dad would ask another question, “Okay, what positive came out of it.” This trained Blakely to not only take risks, but also find the gift in feedback. This mindset allowed Blakely to persist through failure when others quit because of embarrassment.

This approach to failure was also embraced by the legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who constantly told his teams that if they weren’t failing, they weren’t trying hard enough. Thomas Edison had a similar view of failure, reportedly saying that he hadn’t failed, he’d just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.

Fear of failure can be dangerous. For example, I had a law school classmate who was depressed, almost suicidal, because he was afraid he wouldn’t achieve his goal to be ranked at the top of his class. He was getting a world class education, at a top law school, in an idyllic location, passing all of his classes, with numerous job offers awaiting him, and yet he was demoralized because he wasn’t at the top. Because he wasn’t Michael Jordan.

I had another classmate during my PhD program who told me that she would consider herself a failure if she didn’t get a job at a top ranked university. I responded that she could have a great life as a professor at lots of schools that weren’t considered top schools. But she wouldn’t budge. When she finished her PhD, she applied to just a few schools, got zero job offers, and left academia altogether.

I was shocked by this approach. All things equal, most students want a job at a top school. But the actual day-to-day work at lower tiered schools is essentially the same, as work at higher tiered school. When I graduated with my PhD I submitted 80 job applications and got zero tenure track job offers. After doing a post doc for a year, I submitted 25 more applications, and got zero more job offers. Finally, after completing another year as a post doc, improving my record, and submitting 60 more applications, I received 1 tenure track job offer at the University of Kansas where I work today. The failure would have been to fear failure and give up. Or set an unreasonable standard.

But so what. Why does this matter?

Kobe Bryant, the all-time great basketball player once said that, anyone can go 0-10. But only the greats can go 0-20. In other words, we all fail. But greatness is reserved for those who are willing to keeping failing and learn from it. Michael Jordan is amazing for winning 6 titles. But LeBron James is amazing for losing 6 titles and still persisting. Not everyone can be at the top of their class, or get the most prestigious job. And that’s okay.

If our Resume of Failures keeps growing, or if we’re rejected by 164 schools, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to hide, as long as we’re still taking shots on goal, and learning from our failures. I sincerely hope that each week at your own dinner table, you will proudly, and fearlessly, report your own failures.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously

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