Thursday, January 31, 2013

Failure

OMG!  (I think that translates to "Oh my goodness.")  According to an ASQ survey, 81% of parents are "uncomfortable if their child does not perform well in sports."  Glad my parents didn't read that when I was a kid.  I learned early on that I was not good in sports--any sports.  You don't want me on your team.  Fortunately, it never bothered me (or my parents).  A slightly smaller percentage of parents were distressed over their children's bad grades, so success in sports is a little more important than academic excellence.  That's hardly surprising when you compare the salaries of high school dropouts who play football with college professors.

What about healthcare? For their part, students cited a fear of failing as a reason not to take STEM courses.  OMG.  How else do you establish your place in the world and learn what you're good at?  And where is it written that you have to be good in STEM subjects to have a career in healthcare! Success after failure requires dedication--some might say passion.  Yes, I'd say that.  I failed my first test when I was about 10, an external exam in Morse code. Decided that I didn't really care about Morse code and never looked back.  Later, I failed the first test I took in college: French. But that was something I did care about, and four years later, I toured France for a month and spoke only French. 
ASQ frames this is the sense of hesitancy to take risks because of fear of failure.  This, of course, is the reason one company has an award for failure.  The thinking is that if you're afraid of failure, you'll never try anything, and the company will miss opportunities. 

All of this assumes that failure and success are black and white dichotomous issues.  This is rarely the case.  We have all made decisions that didn't turn out well.  We reached the destination, but it took a little more time/gas to get there.   I can also recall some unexpected successes on trying out wild and improbable ideas.  Akin to disruptive innovation. 

How do we change this thinking in parents?  Children (even adult children) must be allowed to fail and to know that we still love them.  It's OK to fail.  Fast forward now to a healthcare environment.  As a manager/CEO, you must be able to say (to yourself), "That sounds like a really terrible idea, but if you want to try, have at it."  The employee hears only the part after "but."  That's another way of saying, "I support you in this.  Win or lose, I'm with you."  It's important to be able to say that even when you think it's a terrible idea.  Did she ask your opinion?  Did you ask how she planned to dodge this or that sinkhole? 

There is an unsubstantiated quote from a famous leader: "If you succeed, the glory will be yours.  If you fail, the responsibility is mine" (because I knew what you were doing and allowed you to proceed).  The corollary must always be, "in either case, we still love you."  I'm thinking of Little League parents.  Some years ago, "empowerment" was an au currant concept, and it's the same thing. Give employees (and children) the power to make decisions--even bad ones, and be there to catch them when they fall.  Remember, you're not always right.

Maybe we need to change our culture to re-define success and failure, so we are more tolerant of ideas that don't work out as anticipated.  Teddy Roosevelt once defined happiness as "working hard at work worth doing."  I also like Paloma Herrera's advice on becoming a successful ballerina: "First you must have a passion.  Then you must work very hard."  Neither philosophy excludes failure.  Neither requires that every endeavor be successful.  Indeed, for TR, success is achieved by working hard. 

There is, of course, another side to this.  If you failed every math test you ever took, it's probably not a good idea to go to engineering school.  However, you only learn that by taking risks and being willing to fail.  In this case, "failure" means better defining where your strengths lie.

Next week, I'm taking a risk.  I'm starting a class in digital media at the Corcoran Art School with a bunch of art majors who will be about one third my age.  This may not go well, and I hope that's OK with everyone.

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