How to succeed at failing the right way
It has been written, whispered and shouted that the road to success is paved with failures. But which failures? The failures you learn from, that are useful, that make you and your business stronger… Curious about where I’m going with this? Me too. Let’s play this out through the distorted prism of the failed New Year’s Resolution – and of course an amusing anecdote to finish.
Sifting through the cooling embers of snuffed out new year’s resolutions, it becomes clear why so many of them were doomed to failure. Like a forensic, well anything really, you can piece together the cause of the problem, what exacerbated it and what eventually fanned the flames of failure to the point where defeat was not only a distinct possibility but a foregone conclusion. Awful isn’t it? When all that blind optimism goes up in the smoke from that forbidden cigarette or perhaps those sweet, fatty treats scraped from the grill of the barbecue, all you’re left with is the desire to forget any of it ever happened. By "it", I mean the grand dreams of a slimmer, kinder you. Or was it a better prepared, more fastidious you? Or was it the you that would: never again drunk-text or post; just say no to that thing you finally realised you just had to say no to; never fall for that same line; never drive that fast or in anger; be slower to rage against… anything really, the boss, the partner, the machine, yourself?
New Year’s resolutions are tricky and mostly doomed to failure. Would you like to know why?
Why New Year’s resolutions are doomed to failure
You’re still reading. I’m going to take that as a “yes”. There are three significant reasons for the breathtakingly high failure rate of these annual resolutions. The frightening thing is, this also happens in companies, businesses and organisations in general. Those at fault? Well it can be anyone really – any kind of decision-maker at work, be it a manager, owner, director. And that’s a little north of frightening, isn’t it?
Fair warning: when you read through the following three points, you may enjoy a bit of a chuckle as you recognise yourself in some of these “self-sabotaging resolutionary” missteps. However, the mirth might melt away when you superimpose these gaffs over your work and/or planning processes. Anyway, shall we? You first:
1) Say Anything – this is not just the name of a so-so John Cusack rom-com vehicle exhumed from the archives of cable channel dross, but a shockingly common method of coming up with a new year’s resolution. Standing inches (minutes, whatever) away from the precipice of the coming new year and wearied from false promises made during the annual performance review at work, we blurt out the first thing that sounds like it could put to bed, memories of the year past. (Yes, last year, with its lukewarm successes and thankfully low-key disasters.) Finally, a chance to make amends with a blithe, “well that was last year, let’s put it behind us.” Problem is, just because something’s behind you, doesn’t mean to say it won’t follow you around. Especially if we’re relying on a hastily strung together sentence affirming our resolve to “do better next year”. Yikes.
2) Short-sightedness – It’s strange. It’s strange how new year’s resolutions never get the respect they deserve. After all, they often represent the very first promise made to oneself to improve something about yourself in the coming year. And yet, if we fall off the wagon, the treadmill, the strictures of that diet/eating programme/food fad we’ll just laugh it off and spend morning teas in March munching on high-fat, high-carb muffins, chuckling over the absurdity of keeping a promise – to yourself.
These things have an effect on you that will affect you (just hedging my grammatical bets there). The great “Bear” Bryant, a famed football coach once told his young men that “The first time you quit, it’s hard. The second time, it gets easier. The third time, you don’t even have to think about it.” Assuming that a failed or unrealised promise – to yourself no less – will have little to no affect on your psyche is, as promised, short-sighted and perhaps even calamitous… we’ll see.
3) No fall-back plan – We all like the idea of setting sail for sprawling foreign shores, burning our ships and making a new and exciting life. Many a start-up, Viking settlement (a bit sketchy on my 9th century history) and book on business philosophy was built on such premises. It’s sink or swim, it’s win or lose, it’s victory or death. Was it the father of Robert the Bruce that suggested that it was easy to follow uncompromising men? Not sure. But I am sure that a plan without a back-up plan is only half a plan. Without a fall-back position, even if it’s just a safe-haven from which one can assess and plan next moves, you’re just assuming that everything will be juuuust fine. Even Sun Tzu would seek to know all about the adversary before tossing a match at the kerosene-soaked rigging of the ships.
I’ve deliberately avoided the whole planning and preparation lecture as there are literally millions of people, books, blogs and organisations focused solely on that particular biosphere. No, this was just an elaborate set-up to share a brief but amusing anecdote about my most successful new year’s resolution ever.
And now for a brief but amusing anecdote
So, after literally years of failed resolutions that usually petered out, exploded or simply slunk away into the night by mid-February, I decided that I was going to succeed. This time was going to be different. All this occurred during the heyday of my so-so football career while I was all about training for size and strength and eating meat for… size and strength. Oh yes, for almost 7 glorious years I subsisted on little more than breakfast cereals, poultry and dismembered ruminants – sometimes in the same dish, not always, but sometimes.
As mentioned, all manner of new year’s resolutions had fallen by the wayside, eat more of this, less of that, do more or less of that - more or less an assembly line of dashed hopes for all the reasons previously discussed. Quite dispiriting actually.
Nonetheless, on this particularly new year’s eve, I stood at the precipice of a new year (predictably) and, with the planning, resolve and cunning of a modern day Machiavelli, I resolved to eat no parsley for one year.
It was perfect. The ultimate plan, the perfect crime - if it was a crime to buck the odds and actually keep a promise to myself made on 31 December.
January through to April was easy. I barely even saw any parsley let alone allowed it onto my plate. May through to August was admittedly tricky. I had always eaten out a lot and most restaurants like to festoon their heartier winter offerings with whole plantations of parsley or “garnish” as they like to call it. No problems – a backhander with the fork consigned the green peril to the tablecloth and the danger was out of sight, out of mind and most importantly, stayed out of my mouth.
September, "we can relax now" as training ramped up and flashier meals were passed over in favour of high(er) protein fare that was usually free of any greens. The aforementioned breakfast cereals supplemented the meats and they were notoriously free of garnish.
Then it happened…
As, in my heart of hearts, I knew one day it would. But not like this…
It was a balmy October evening much like any other (if you’re in the southern hemisphere) and I had decided that for the third night that week, lamb shanks would be the feature of the evening meal. I was quick to remind the waiter that there was to be no garnish, parsley or anything resembling it on or near my plate and all was well. Moments later, I took a sip of my room temperature, sparkling mineral water before casually taking a bite from a wedge of warm garlic bread. As my thoughts turned to the desserts (sometimes happens, not often but sometimes), I became vaguely aware of a strange but oddly familiar texture in my mouth. With a start, I shot a glance at my side plate. The garlic bread, it was covered in… shredded parsley.
That night effectively ended my career… not really, but having been so close, only to fail did take a toll. But here’s how it has helped me and may help you. Those little wins, the small ambitions, the schemes to overcome fleeting objections – they still count. They are still wins.
One of the things I had in my favour was a clear picture of what I liked to eat and what I didn’t mind missing out on - forever if necessary. Another was ensuring I gave clear instructions, asked the right questions and remained vigilant (okay for 10 months anyway). These are absolutes. Absolutes are valuable and important because they are solid and provide a foundation on which can be built a small, medium or large offer, business proposition or even a promise… to yourself… on the last day of the year.
However, absolutes are even more valuable when coupled with back-up plans, bigger pictures, integrated strategy, that sort of thing and even then, things could still all turn to parsley. That said, if the resolution had been left to chance, I wouldn’t have learned that there’s a right way and a wrong way to fail.
And now for a cliché (blogs are not complete without them – just a thought), I actually learned that failure is failure but it can still be useful… unlike garnish.
For that, I’ll be forever indebted to parsley.
All the best for this year.