Sam Weinman

On failure, success, and the all-important process

Sam Weinman
On failure, success, and the all-important process

The other day I spoke at a conference for investors and executives at United Nations Plaza, which I agree sounds like a mistake. The only reason I was there is they wanted a few speakers to venture outside of business talk and provide some thought-provoking worldly insights. Then when those people were done, they asked me to speak. I did 20 minutes or so about Win At Losing, the benefits of failure, and the power of a growth mindset. It went pretty well. Only one guy got up and walked out (he received a phone call). Here's my speech:

There is great irony in someone like me addressing a group like this. For starters I possess the business sense of an 11-year-old boy. And if it’s an 11-year-old boy who has dabbled in lemonade stands, then I would give him a slight edge.

But I’m here because I come with an uncommon message about losing, about how losing is good, and and how, as I say in bold letters on my book’s cover, it can lead to our greatest gains. You’ve probably heard a variation of this sentiment before. Losing builds character, and we need to fail fast, etc., etc. I think all of us can embrace this general concept. But less popular is the inverse idea, which is that success, desirable as it sounds, can be counterproductive if you don’t understand it properly.

First, you should know my interest in this topic came by way of a very small, personal challenge. I have two boys, ages 11 and 8, both very competitive athletes, and both who have struggled with losing in whatever the context. They slam their sticks in hockey and throw their gloves in baseball and as I mention in the book, there was one infamous tennis match in which my oldest son threw down his racket and ran off in tears into the parking lot. So as much as my book is about the character-building value of losing, it really began because I wanted to avoid funny looks from other parents.

But over time I came to identify with this notion that losing has very real, very tangible benefits in that it forces us to identify our areas of weakness, and helps to fortify us for whatever comes next. As a journalist wanting to explore the concept further I made a list of people who I wanted to talk to who endured some type of profound, life-altering loss.

Let me tell you, this can be a weird conversation to have. When you call someone up and say you want to talk to them about that time that they screwed up in humiliating fashion, you should be prepared for some awkward silence on the other end. I would compare it to calling certain girls in high school, although at least here I didn’t have to see Michael Dukakis in the hallway the next day.

What helped is that I approached people who embraced the principle that I was after -- people who could point to the benefits of whatever setback they endured. I talked to Greg Norman, the professional golfer who blew a six-shot lead in the Masters, but who in the process became kind of a model for how to handle losing on a big stage. I talked to Dukakis, who lost a very bitter presidential campaign, and who says it was an earlier loss running for governor of Massachusetts that made him a stronger leader.

Michael Dukakis lost a bitter presidential campaign to George H.W. Bush.

Michael Dukakis lost a bitter presidential campaign to George H.W. Bush.

I also talked to the CEOs of failed Internet startups who know the reason failure is such a part of the fabric of Silicon Valley is because it encourages the type of risk that leads to real breakthroughs.

All of these people who rebound effectively from losing have what’s known as a “growth mindset.” You may have heard this term before. I wish I could take credit for it, but it's really the creation of a brilliant Stanford psychology professor named Carol Dweck.

Dweck describes a growth mindset as someone who thinks our abilities can be cultivated and developed over time, while a fixed mindset essentially determines we have a set array of abilities, and that our successes and failures are a reflection of that.  As Dweck sees it, no one is all one thing or the other. We all have fixed mindset and growth mindset tendencies that compete within. But ultimately it's the growth mindset we want because it better prepares us for handling challenge in all its forms.

One of Dweck’s most famous experiments was involving a group of fifth graders. It was very simple but very smart.  In it she gave the kids a fairly easy exam. When the kids fared well on the exam, half were praised for their intelligence. They were told things like “Wow, you’re really smart." The other kids were praised for working hard on their answers. They were told, “Wow, you really worked hard here.”

What’s interesting is in a later, more difficult test, the two groups began to reflect fixed- and growth-mindset tendencies. The “smart” kids grew frustrated when they no longer seemed as smart. The “effort” kids embraced the challenge of the more difficult test.

The reason why I love Dweck’s experiment is because it helped me wrap my brain around two main ideas. One I sort of already knew. It’s this idea that when faced with challenge, we want to be resilient. We want my son when he loses a tennis match not to throw his racket and storm off into the parking lot, but to recognize the opportunity to improve his forehand or backhand so he can get better. Or when a business fails, we want everyone to recognize the mistakes they made so they can apply those lessons to whatever comes next.

I think all of us can appreciate that's the right way to handle losing. What’s interesting, though, is that Dweck’s experiment shed even more light on the better way to handle winning. Think back to the kids who were told how smart they were. The reason it proved to be so crippling is because the kids became seduced by this concept of superiority. If they were simply better, then the expectation is that things should just be easier for them.

This is a trap we all fall into. One of the people I profile in my book is Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball who was ousted from his job in the mid-90s. Decades earlier, Vincent was a college football player who broke his back after climbing onto the icy ledge of his dorm room window, losing his footing, and falling from the second floor. When I asked Vincent what happened that day, he said at the time he was so convinced of his athleticism, he never even considered he might fall.

On a smaller scale professional golfers often say a big trap before tournaments is when they’re “hitting it great.”  A golfer will show up just expecting to play well. Sometimes he’ll even fly in his wife and his kids for the tournament because he wants them to be there when he wins. More times than not, that golfer goes out the first day and falls on his face.

The former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy calls this dynamic “a lazy head space” that golfers are prone to, and he counters it with a story that illustrates just the opposite.

Ogilvy told me of a tournament in which he literally couldn’t hit the ball straight in the early part of the week. He had trouble sleeping at night. He spent hours on the driving range desperate for answers before finally arriving at a swing that actually worked. The next three days he ended up playing the best golf of his life and won the tournament.

The Ogilvy story underscores the value of growth mindset problem solving, and how the process of scratching around for answers ultimately leaves us on stronger footing. But it also suggests that when things are simply going well, we probably don’t ask enough questions as to why.

Bear in mind this is not my way of saying we should court failure and resist success. I am not a Communist. I like winning as much as the next guy, even more so if it prevents my kid from running hysterically into a parking lot. But I am a big believer that success needs to be attributed to the right things. It shouldn’t be talent or being smarter or some magical light that clicks on at the right time. Instead it should be “the process” that led to that success - the effort, the problem solving, all those building blocks that got you where you are.

Another metaphor: Think about if you worked yourself into the best shape of your life. You went to the gym five times a week. You gave up sugar and gluten and you slept 9 hours every night in a hyperbaric chamber. If someone asked you why you look so good recently, you wouldn’t say, “I was born this way.” You would recognize the effort you put in, and how the only way to maintain that condition is to stay faithful to that process.

Again, it’s that whole idea of the growth mindset, and understanding the role you have in both your success and your failures. Dweck doesn’t dismiss the idea that some people have different abilities than others. I can display all the persistence in the world and I still probably won't play center in the NBA. Even if I did it would probably only be for the Knicks. But our natural abilities are only a broad framework. Everything else falls to us.

So let's go back to what I said earlier about my lack of business sense. The other night I was on the train home from work. It was one of those crowded evening trains where you couldn't get a seat so I found a spot in the doorway. There I ran into a friend. She knew I had a book coming out and she said what a lot of people say, which is “Oh I could never write a book. I just can't put thoughts down on paper.” My friend worked in finance, and all I could think was, “I could never work in finance. It would be a disaster.” I suspect my wife would agree. Like I said, we all have these fixed mindset tendencies, and we also have certain natural aptitudes that we’re given.

But the reality is I could work in finance. And my friend could write a book. Both of us would have to fight through some of those inherent challenges the respective fields present to us, but in many ways that's the healthier way to tackle the problem. The more attuned we are to our weaknesses, the greater our determination, the sharper our focus.

Trust me, this is not my long-winded way of lobbying this group for a job. But it is my way of saying that we should all pay greater attention to process and effort because it's far more important than whatever natural talent you were blessed with. Really the most important ability is your willingness to work. Everything else falls from there. Thank you.