Archive for the ‘Success / Failure’ Category

Steve Jobs Was a Failure!

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Steve Jobs

Much was written last month regarding Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO of Apple Computer.  Various articles chronicled the numerous contributions which Jobs made in technology, business, film and (global!) culture.

However, my favorite profile was penned by the Boston Globe’s Hiawatha Bray, who was quite vocal about the many failures which Jobs also experienced.  What was most enlightening about Bray’s profile was the way it pointed out that many of Jobs’ failures served as the foundation and starting point for future successes.  (Indeed, Jobs’ famous 2005 Stanford commencement ceremony speech had similar themes.)

Everyone who aspires to leave their mark on the world (and hopefully that is everyone), can learn valuable lessons regarding the inseparably intertwined roles of both success and failure as we strive to achieve our goals.

In fact, Google’s Don Dodge and others suggest that failure is a prerequisite for business success:

  • Walt Disney’s first animation company went bankrupt, and he endured numerous subsequent failures
  • Rovio produced 51 other games before hitting it big with Angry Birds
  • Harmonix had 9 failed games before succeeding with Guitar Hero
  • WD40 had 39 formulations which didn’t work
  • Formula 409 had 408 formulations which didn’t work
  • James Dyson needed 5,127 prototypes and 15 years of failure to launch his vacuums (now a $1B+ business)

So stay true to your vision / goals.  Persevere through (and learn from) your failures until your “success” finally arrives.

…and as you are setting goals, keep in mind, that — per Built to Last (affiliate link), which should be required reading for leaders in every sector — you should be targeting BHAGs.  Here are some thoughts about how to set BHAGs (here, here and here)and how to achieve BHAGs.


Steve Jobs image: © Featureflash |

Knocked Down, but not Knocked Out

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

It is rare that successful people trumpet their failures.  Most communication effort seems to be centered around the applause-winning successes.

However, I came across a business publication which included some compelling failure-lessons:

  • Endeavor (a global organization for high-impact entrepreneurs) learned you can’t always win.  In the business mantra, “Go big, or go home,” we need to spend a lot more time on the second half: “Go home.” Knowing when to shut down a failed initiative is as vital as knowing when to start one.
  • Three lessons from a Humane Society activist: (1) Don’t declare “mission accomplished” too early.  (2) Trust, but verify.  (3) Court both adversaries and allies, and use self-interest as a motivator.
  • Mohammed Ali teaches the studio chief of Colombia Pictures that “getting knocked down is part of being in the business.  It’s inevitable.  But once you know you can get up, no matter what, you become stronger and resilient.”
  • After surviving extraordinary challenges in a failed attempt to scale Mount McKinley (aka “Denali”), a mountaineer found that “nothing I have faced in business or in my personal life—nothing—has seemed insurmountable.”

These and other stories of success and failure can be found at the Harvard Business Review Failure Chronicles.

Another article (from candidly discusses the impact of entrepreneurial failure on the owner’s personal life.



Failure as a Business Imperative

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

I have not written on success and failure in a while now…

This morning, Chris Brogan distributed an interesting post on the concept of “failure as a business imperative.”  In addition to the common concept of  “failing fast,”  he went so far as to state that  “every bit of success I’ve had has come through failing.”
He included some interesting references, including Sam Walton, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and colleagues at HubSpot.
Click here to read his post.  I think you may find a useful gem (or two…).
(You can also find this and a few of my other posts on “success/failure” here.)

Have you put in your 10,000 hours?

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Last night, my wife and I (and some friends) attended a live performance by Sinbad, the comedian.  It was the first time I had done that.

Yes, I went to a handful of comedy clubs years ago, and was usually entertained by the “hit or miss” collection of  comedic “hopefuls” who performed in those venues.   However, I have never seen a live performance by a comedian of Sinbad’s caliber.

As the audience waited for his appearance, there was no warm-up act.  Indeed, the starkly bare stage contained only a stool and a microphone stand.

However, once he came on stage, he spent 2.5 hours (with no break!) hilariously engaging a rapt audience with (seemingly) unscripted, ad-libbed observations; continually improvising off of questions he threw out to the audience.  I found it remarkable.

The list of top 10 fears for an average American includes “fear of public speaking” (glossophobia).  So, the average American would be deathly afraid of standing on such a stage.  Even a seasoned professional might cringe at the thought of facing several thousand unknown people with no podium, no script, no PowerPoint slides, no band, no backup, no props, no stage hands, no supporting actors, no Teleprompter, no orchestra, no press secretary, no staff.  However, Sinbad was clearly in his element, and owned the moment.

Afterward, I asked a friend if he thought that Sinbad spent any time preparing for each performance, or whether he just walked on stage and started rolling.  The ensuing conversation led us to remember observations from the book,  Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.   Outliers examines the stories told about extremely successful people.  Such stories typically focus on intelligence and ambition as the key success factors for these well known people.  However, in Outliers, the author probes the other (often unknown) contextual factors which contributed to the success of those individuals.

Gladwell points out that, even in a forest, “the tallest oak…is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.”

Similarly, for successful people, there were situational contexts which  contributed to their successes:

  • In 1960, while the Beatles were still just a struggling high school rock band in Liverpool, they happened to be invited to play at some low-paying, low-life clubs in Hamburg, Germany.  In a typical club, they had to play for 5-8 hours a night, 7 days a week.  The sheer amount of performance time increased their skill and their confidence.  Indeed, in 1.5 years they performed 270 nights!  “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964… they had performed live an estimated 1200 times; [whereas] most bands today don’t perform 1200 times in their entire careers.  The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart” and helped them hone their craft to a remarkable level.  The Beatles put in their time and were prepared to succeed, if an opportunity presented itself.  By the time they  launched in the United States, they had  spent over 10,000 hours honing their craft.  [Indeed, the legendary album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was not released until 10 years after the Beatles were founded.]
  • In 1968, “as a precocious and easily bored eighth grader,” Bill Gates parents “sent him to Lakeside, a private school that catered to Seattle’s elite families.  Midway through Gates’ second year at Lakeside, the school started a computer club.” This was an amazing thing, because, in the 1960’s, most colleges did not even have computer clubs; let alone a high school! Even more amazing was the fact that Gates was given free (!), unlimited (!)  access to a time-sharing terminal with a direct link to a mainframe computer in downtown Seattle.  This was a remarkably-advanced setup for an era in which, even if you had access to a computer, you typically programmed by utilizing laborious computer punch cards! And time-share access was typically very expensive.  During the next five years, Gates lived in the computer club room, and did other computer-oriented commercial and academic activities.  “By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own software company, he’d been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years,” logging, in the process, more than 10,000 hours honing his craft (before most of the world even knew that such a craft existed).
  • Other successful individuals mentioned by Gladwell include Bill Joy, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Cleopatra, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, etc.  Gladwell also explores: Why certain demographic groups became dominant in merger and acquisition law;  Cultural legacies which increased the incidence of jet plane crashes among certain airplane pilots; The lessons learned in rice paddies which increased one culture’s performance in math; Etc.

But the question I want to put to you is, Have you put in your 10,000 hours, yet?

You may have looked at folks like Sinbad, Gates, The Beatles, Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, or whoever your heroes are, and envied them for their brilliance.  Yes, it is undeniable that they have fabulous levels of ability.  But what they also had was a series of experiences (and setbacks!) which allowed them to put in 10,000 hours (and more!) to hone their craft to a point where they were head-and-shoulders-above others in their field.  Even then, “success” did not appear until a variety of “happenstantial” circumstances created an opportunity for them to strut their stuff.

So get out there.  Do your thing.  Learn from your successes and failures.  Learn from the successes and failures of others.  Put in your 10,000 hours.   And become a successful Outlier in your field.

Additional contact info:
Webwww.TKGweb.comTwitter: @tonyparham

Learning from Corporate Flops

Monday, October 26th, 2009

In an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal, an associate professor at Columbia Business School described some of her research in regards to how corporations struggle with new ventures.

Interestingly, she indicated that many of the new ventures which she studied “were all, by and large, beautifully planned.  And yet, the way they were planned caused the decision makers to make erroneous choices” which resulted in their demise.

Some lessons:

  • Don’t treat untested assumptions as facts.
  • Create an assumption checklist which captures: the source of the data for the assumption, why you thought the assumption was sensible and the date when you last checked the assumption.
  • Tie testing of the assumptions to the unfolding of the business.  At each checkpoint, stop and evaluate assumptions.
  • Test assumptions early and cheaply (before you make significant investments, such as in a plant and/or equipment).

In addition to the above points mentioned in her article, it is also wise to:

  • Identify in advance the critical metrics and milestones which would indicate success or failure for your endeavor.
  • Track your metrics on an ongoing basis.
  • Identify in advance actions which will be taken if the venture is not favorably performing in regards to its metrics.
  • Identify worst-case scenarios, and make realistic plans which will be executed to minimize negative ramifications if a worst-case scenario occurs.  (Note: It is a mistake to assume that the worst-case scenario will never occur.)
  • Take action, fail fast.  Don’t procrastinate when the situation calls for change .

Since no one can completely predict the future, your goal is to minimize the cost of your venture-learning as you adapt to the real-life scenarios which unfold before you.

The complete WSJ article can be found here.

Additional contact info:
Webwww.TKGweb.comTwitter: @tonyparham

Fail Like You Mean It !

Monday, August 31st, 2009

All great effort involves striving — and sometimes falling short.

A few luminaries share their thoughts on this topic:

  • Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway PT and many other innovations) discusses how creative people fail frequently, rarely work linearly and never give up:
  • A Honda Motors video shares some of their insights regarding success (and failure) re: their racing cars:
  • A video profiles famous failures:
  • A book author reminds us that even successful celebrities had to endure some rain before they saw their rainbows:
  • Thomas Alva Edison famously said, “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” and “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
    – Edison is considered the most famous American inventor, and has, singly or jointly, held a world record 1,093 patents.  In addition, he created the world’s first industrial research laboratory.
  • “You can’t let your failures define you. You must let your failures teach you. … The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, tried harder, who loved their country … too much to do anything less than their best. … So, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems will you solve? What will others say about you years from now?”
    – Excerpt from President Barack Obama’s address to America’s students
  • “You’ve lost your job but you have not lost your skills, talents, or expertise. Skills, talents, and expertise are transferable. … Knowledge is portable. … What you do does not define who you are. You have to separate your net worth from your self-worth. Your net worth is going to fluctuate… but your self-worth should only appreciate.”
    – Chris Gardner, former homeless person, now a millionaire, profiled in the book/movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and this Black Enterprise article.
  • “One of the things that I think is most valuable about sports is that you can play a great game and still not win.”
    – President Barack Obama, comments after losing bid to host the summer Olympics for 2016 in Chicago.  Not since 1976 had a US candidate been eliminated so early in the voting process.  — October 2009
  • “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again (because there is no effort without error or shortcoming), but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
    Excerpt from the “Citizenship in a Republic” speech which Theodore Roosevelt gave at the Sorbonne in Paris, April 23, 1910.
  • “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson