Learning to Fail

May 3, 2012

So, how many times have you screwed up? How many times have you misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just misjudged? How many times have you been wrong? How many times have you failed?

As they say in motorcycle racing, crashing sucks! And if you’ve seen the way they go down, you’d have to agree that wrecking while wrenching a 300 pound machine just inches from the ground at 120 miles per hour is pretty much the apogee of failure. Nothing like racing forward at full speed with your desired end result in mind, possibly even in sight, and having it all go to hell with one miscalculation. Most times it’s easier to handle, though more disappointing, when it’s your screw up. If it’s someone around you or even someone on your team, it can send you into freakout mode because their mistake caused you to fail.

Failure sucks for a bunch of reasons. Mostly it sucks because, well, you failed! You didn’t accomplish what you wanted. But it also sucks because there’s usually negative consequences associated with failure. The bridge falls, the car won’t start, dinner tastes like a wet sock, you lose money, your CUSTOMER loses money, your girlfriend splits with half your stuff…the list goes on. If it’s a work-related failure there’s usually a butt-chewing that follows. Might even be a documented butt-chewing. Might even be a FINAL documented butt-chewing. Might be a smile and a wave as you pack your box.

But failure teaches us so much. For starters, it teaches us what NOT to do. Ever stuck a penny in an electrical outlet? Ever did it again? I didn’t think so. I remember getting my first ten-speed bike (yea, I’m that old…). Grabbed a handful of front brake and went tumbling over the front wheel. Did it right in front of a pack of kids from school who thought it was so funny as I tumbled through the air and across the asphalt. My pride was bruised, my back and shoulder were scraped, but my brain was smarter. Note to self, don’t try to stop quickly using just the front brake…especially with people around!

Failure also teaches us how to fix stuff. As a manager, I don’t want people who can just come in and do stuff. I want people who can come in and do stuff BETTER. I want people who can look at what we’re doing and say, I have an idea on how to improve that. And then I want them to shut the hell up and do it! I want people who can take responsibility for something and make it awesome. I want people, who can fix things. And how do you learn to fix things? Well, most times you learn by having broken it at some point. My Dad told me this awesome story about when he was a teenager and learning to work on cars. He pulled the distributor out of my grandfather’s 1958 Chevy. His uncle looked at him and said, that’s nice. Put it back. So Dad did. And the car wouldn’t start! Seems you have to have the distributor lined up just right, you can’t just shove it back in. Took my Dad the rest of the day and most of the night to figure it out so my grandfather could go to work the next day. I can identify. As a new HR person I was given the task of planning an employee picnic. It was an unmitigated disaster. After that I knew everything I should do to make it better. Still can’t stand employee picnics, though…

But more importantly it teaches us that we are not infallible. In an era of participant ribbons and no scoreboards and over-complimentary parenting sometimes we have to learn that we aren’t as freaking wonderful as we think we are. Sometimes we do dumb stuff and when we do there’s a negative consequence. The truly brilliant man is not the one who can tell you everything he knows, it’s the one who realizes there’s so much more to learn! Sometimes it’s a skill we need to learn. Sometimes it’s the application of the skill that we need to learn. Sometimes we just need to stop believing our own bullshit. Most times we fail because we don’t know something about ourselves.

So what’s the difference between messing up and learning from one’s mistakes? Well, first is a level of awareness. You have to be able to recognize situations where your actions, or the actions of those around you, have lead to failure and be able to quickly dispense with the excuses and get to the mechanics. Many times getting past the excuse phase is hard because we want to focus on WHO failed rather than WHY we failed. And in most of these cases, everyone played a role in the failure. Healthy self-awareness is being able to admit our own role in the failure then quickly get past that and on to the repair.

So, next is the competence to fix whatever it is that contributed to the failure. This shouldn’t be mistaken for fixing it yourself. Going back to self-awareness it’s important that you know your limits and seek out expert advice. If I’m sick, I go to a doctor. I know people who like to self-medicate. They take herbs and roots and berries and all that stuff when what they need to do is go see a doctor. Call me when WebMD has taught you out how to carve out that brain tumor and I’ll say it’s a good idea. Until then, I know what I know and I know what I don’t know. I’m gonna get help with the stuff I don’t know.

Finally is the support structure that not only allows, but encourages periodic failure. I remember my son tooling off down the street on the little trail bike I bought him. I almost threw up….. I knew he was going to run into a car, or a tree, or a dog, or just fall and break some random body part (going back to the top, that’s why crashing sucks!). But, he wasn’t going to learn to ride unless I let him ride. He still rides today. Does pretty good. But I’ve also worked in HR long enough to know that everyone is just one screw up away from getting canned. With that in mind we sometimes work harder to cover our ass or set others up to take the fall for our mistake (for reference, see the lyrics to, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid”).

On that note, ever been stabbed in the back? It sucks worse than crashing, but it’s a special kind of failure. It’s a failure in trust and judgment. You put your trust in someone else, and they violate that trust for their own self-interest. I wrote about inconvenient truths a few blogs ago. Here’s another one. Some people are just assholes. Learn to deal with it.

To new grads I say, get out of your seat and go fail. To their future bosses I say, don’t be a jerk. Let them fail then man up and support them when they do. Failure doesn’t make either you weaker, it makes both of you stronger!

Shoot me a note at UCF_OCC@yahoo.com if you think I’ve failed in my reasoning. Send me a note if you think I’ve succeeded. Whatever the reason, get out there and talk to folks. Peace!

Ever been to a motorcycle rally? We have them all over the place in Florida. The big daddy, of course, is Bike Week in Daytona. But there are rallies in most of the major cities and even some of the minor ones. The Leesburg Bike Fest has come to be known as Spring’s alternative to Bike Week. Don’t like the crowds and over commercialization of Bike Week? Then head to the far side of Lake County and enjoy Main Street the way it was meant to be!

I rode over and here’s what I learned this weekend…

Know what your audience wants to hear and PLAY IT LOUD!
Riding an air-cooled motorcycle for an hour or hanging around them for most of the day will make your ears ring. Not quite deaf, but just that muffly-muted sensation coupled with a background tone that makes it hard to hear nuances and talkative passengers. To entertain riders, bike rallies will set up multiple stages for cultural expositions such as musicianship, artistry (i.e., tattoo shows) and beauty contests (i.e., wet t-shirt contests). When it comes to music (notice how deftly I skip over tattoos and t-shirts!) most people who attend bike rallies like classic rock. ZZ Top, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company… Fortunately for bikers, this music is best enjoyed, at Nigel Tufnel amplification levels. I say fortunately, because, to cut through the ringing noise in everyone’s ears, you have to make it heard!

For job seekers, make sure the most pertinent qualifications that you possess cut through the ringing noise in recruiters ears. Recruiters view stacks of resumes all with the same vomit-inducing Objective statement, managers interview dozens of interview-suited little punks like you, everyone has “strong communication skills” and a “track record of success.” Identify 3-5 SPECIFIC qualifications that you possess and keep going back to those themes. Lead your resume with these skills, work them into every response you give, and include references top them in the questions you ask. Amplify your argument to 11 by supporting your candidacy with a simple, straightforward case that’s based on behaviors, not clichés. What are you doing when you communicate strongly? What did you do to succeed? Describe those behaviors repeatedly to your audience to cut through the numbing buzz of applicant exhaust noise.

Where’s the beef?
Damn, bikers like meat! No, seriously. In one small block you can eat burgers, hot dogs, smoked turkey legs, BBQ, grilled sausages, Philly cheesesteak, Chicken on a stick, and almost any other mammal that possesses a mother and a face. Want a nice green salad or some poached asparagus? Better go look elsewhere! Come on, everyone sing together! Old MacDonald had a farm…and then the biker ate it…

When you are describing your top-shelf behaviors, make sure you have specific EXAMPLES. Think of a recruiter looking at your resume like those three little old ladies on the Wendy’s commercial. If all you offer is fluff someone is gonna bust you like Clara Peller. Be descriptive. Take your behavior descriptions to the next level by supporting your qualifications with metrics. Analyze what happened so you show you’re capable of complex thought. Competence is the beef recruiters seek!

Posers can’t help but look the part
You always know who really rides their bike, and who only rides it so they can park it somewhere and stand next to it. As silly as those reflector-suited guys look on their BMWs, you know they ride some serious miles. Likewise, no one goes through the pain to squeeze sausage-like into riding leathers to just stand and bake in the Florida heat and humidity (PU!!). Additionally, comfy jeans and a t-shirt doesn’t mean you don’t eat up the miles. But if your outfit is too coordinated, you just look silly. Really, high heeled riding boots? Chaps with your butt hanging out? Ironed jeans?

Similarly, if you go into an interview thinking you’ll just wing it or if you apply for a job that you aren’t qualified to do, you’ll be quickly identified and culled from the heard like a wounded yearling. Recruiters are trained to pare a large pool down to a small subset quickly. Good recruiters can do it without thinking. Why? For the reasons I state above. If you have qualifications for a job you can give examples and metrics. If you have a passion for an industry or job, you can talk about it. If you have properly researched an employer you can relate your skills to the mission and values the company espouses. Don’t be a generic poser. Know what you offer and get into your craft. Find a passion and pursue it.

Your dream bike isn’t always your first bike…but it taught you how to ride!
Posers aside, the best part (if there is one) of going to a bike rally is just looking around. People, bikes, and their collected personalities come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and functions. If you like machines then just walk up and down the street. Yes, there are lots of Harleys. But they are parked next to sportbikes, power cruisers, Goldwings, custom bikes, and cobbled together Dr. Frankenstein two-wheeled visions. People range in age from a few months to what looks like a few hundred years. This year I saw a guy with a customized Honda Trail 70. SWEET!! In 4th Grade my Dad brought home a beat to hell blue one and that was my introduction to motorized two-wheeled transit. Didn’t go more than 20 miles per hour, smoked like a Jersey barfly, and looked like it had been dragged behind a truck. Been in love ever since.

If you talk to other riders they started out on a relatively narrow band of “starter rides.” Small displacement cruisers, sportbikes and trail bikes are most common. Then you get good. You develop skills. Maybe even take a few falls. But, just like you, the folks on the bikes that make you salivate; the sleek Ducatis, radical ‘Busas, long-forked choppers, mile-munching touring rigs, and even home-built bobbers all started on something simple and easy to ride. New grads need to remember that to get to their dream job, they need to start out in a relatively “un-glamorous” entry-level job. Build your skills. Learn to fail. Learn to learn from your failure so you don’t do that again. Then, when you have the requisite competence you can get that sexy red job that corners like Nicky Hayden!

Be aware of your surroundings
Some jackass behind me at a red light honked the other day when I was turning right. I guess I wasn’t aggressive enough in my decision making on when to turn right on red. I generally don’t like turning right on red when I’m on my bike. At least not unless I can see lots of clear road to my left. This was in traffic with a steady line of oncoming cars making a right turn. I generally prefer to wait. I also look around a lot when I’m riding. I look at brake lights in front of me, drivers who feel it’s necessary to ride next to me, trucks entering from the right and left, and even the asphalt when I put my feet down at a stoplight. I’m hoping all of this will extend (and increase my enjoyment of) my time in the saddle.

Applicants should adopt this “swivel-headed” approach to employment. If you are going to apply for a job, be aware of the qualifications the company wants. And have them! Watch your interviewer’s body language. If they smile, they like what you’re saying. Smile back. If they furrow their brow as if in thought, better explain how what you’re saying relates to their question. If they frown, don’t do what you’re doing. If they look serious, be serious. Research your target companies. More than just on Wikipedia! Look at their financials. Look at their Directors. Look up the person who will interview you on LinkedIn. Google the manager and see if they’ve been in the news lately. And then, when you get the interview, keep looking around and processing what you see and feel to decide if this is a place where you can be successful.

Ride hard, have fun, be cool, be safe!