A few days ago I heard a fascinating interview that Paul Finebaum did with sports writer Don Yeager. Yeager said that years ago when he started his career, his dad realized he would be in a position to interview a lot of great athletes, so he told Don that during every interview he should ask that athlete a question that he could learn from. Even if their answer didn’t make it into the interview. Over the years, Don explained that he made a habit of asking the athletes he talked to what made them great. Why did they think they were able to consistently win, when other athletes that may have had more talent, could not.
He said that the most common reason that the great athletes he interviewed gave for their high level of success was that they personalized failures. If their team lost, they didn’t blame the refs, they didn’t blame their teammates, they saw the failure as a result of THEIR actions. As a result, these athletes learned to hate losing more than they enjoyed winning. Other athletes that didn’t or couldn’t do this might have one game or season where they won big, but they usually couldn’t replicate this success. Because they didn’t expect to win, and they were happy and even content with their success.
There are many different ways to look at this mentality:
- It seems a bit depressing. Because the athletes and coaches really can’t enjoy their success, because they are always pushing themselves to win the next game, because they feel they can’t afford to stop and celebrate the current victory (and in many ways, they are probably right).
- If you have the right mindset, this approach can be incredibly liberating and empowering. If you knew and accepted that your success was due to your own actions, then that can be incredibly inspiring. There’s an age-old adage that great athletes always want the ball in their hands when the game is on the line. They want the responsibility to make the play that will win the game.
- On the other side, if you consistently fail, believing it’s completely your fault could have a detrimental effect. Perhaps this explains why athletes get in slumps?
In a business context, how does owning failure translate into future success? I think back to Dell Hell in 2005. At first, Dell seemed to ignore Jeff Jarvis, and even at the time had a stated policy that they don’t respond to bloggers. Over time, the company not only realized it made a mistake in how it handled Dell Hell, but seemed to use that episode as a catalyst to become far more progressive in using blogs and social media to connect with its customers. The very tools that it shunned at first. Owning their failure in the Dell Hell episode put Dell in a position to be the social media case study that they are today.
But on a personal level, do we always own our failures? Should we? I could see a downside to this, what if a manager puts more blame on her shoulders than she’s due? Perhaps out of a sense or loyalty to her team? For some, owning failure could spur them on to future success, but what if the failures became a weight that sapped their self-confidence and in a way became a self-fulfilling prophecy?
How do you handle your failures?