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July 2010

The Failure Option--Succeeding through mistakes

Think it was Winston Churchill who said, "Success is going from one failure to the next, with enthusiasm." And wasn't it venerable and victorious Vince Lombardi who said, "Either get fired with enthusiasm or get fired with enthusiasm!

Fear of failure or the perfection complex is one of the greatest obstacles to career and life development. Taking risks that lead to mistakes that lead to innovation, that lead to new opportunities, that lead to new relationships that lead to greater fulfillment and impact. Sorry do not know the stories of success that are not peppered with blunders, embarrassment, and yes, failure. DefiningMoments

Excerpts from Joey Green's the Road to Success is Paved with Failure:

  • Michael Jordan did not make his high school basketball team.'
  • John F. Kenendy lost his bid to be president of his freshman class at Harvard.
  • Thomas Edison was expelled from school and invented the light bulb after 2000 attempts.
  • Marilyn Monroe was fired from her first film contract for being unattractive.
  • Abraham Lincoln lost 9 elections
  • Coca Cola sold 400 bottles its first year.
  • Douglas MacArthur was denied admission to Westpoint, twice.
  • Elvis got a C in high school music and was told he could not sing.

Failure is the challenge to keep on keeping on.

I have endured some pretty crazy interviews for jobs. But my favorite of all time was the one conducted by the iconic Vinod Khosla. The interview which consisted of two questions and 90 minutes of conversation. He started the interview with, "John, how do you define meaning in your life?"  This was like a verbal brick wall for my twin turbine engine interview prep to slam into. Had to down-shift into a gear to answer that question thoughtfully. That prompted an amazing give and take on regrets, family, relationships, what really matters, and what we hope to to accomplish before we die. Whoa! Then he asked his second and final question: "Take me through your resume in reverse chronological order and tell me the biggest failure at each of your jobs. Don't tell me what you learned, just the failure." I literally laughed out loud. Never heard that question put that way. We all know that a resume hides more than it reveals so when someone rips back the curtain like that it either evokes a primal scream or pure joy. It's amazing how big the mistakes I made were. Some haunt me, some give a prurient source of pride, and still others remind me of how I did grow. I regaled Mr. Khosla with horrid decisions, immature ideas, and blind-sightedness. It was obvious he wanted to see my risk tachometer and how far beyond the red-line I would and had gone. Not reckless, ethically edgy stuff, but what was the appetite for change and challenge? This interview reminded me of my fallibility but also how far I had come. Guess my failures impressed him enough to get the job.

Don't confuse this type of interview with the trite and predictable attempts by interviewees to convert their "weaknesses" into strengths. Very few people reveal any self awareness of their own failings in the interviews today. As if they have read the same stupid script from Interviews for Dummies (I hope this book does not exist). The robotic answers to the question, "What are your weaknesses or areas you need to improve upon?"

  1. Theatrical pause, with no specific answer.----Never hire!
  2. "I guess I work too hard and just can't stop working." ---- Really? Popular but meaningless response.
  3. "I am a perfectionist."----So how's that working? :) Stupid!

When the eyes and answers provide no windows to the soul, then I yank the reject cord! The ability to articulate what you are working on and trying to improve as a professional, as a family person, as a human being is relevant. Pretending that none exist by using party manners and memorized answers is a recipe for failure.

Being laid off is a failure. And while all too commonplace and often not the full responsibility of the employee, it represents a mistake. Was it a real surprise? Why did you wait to be laid off? So you did not have a Plan B or C, why not? You knew it was not going to be your last job, so how long did you think it would last? And what was your plan after that? And what has this failure taught you about your next move?Yes, there are victims of black fridays with no notice (that's how I was laid off), but most "lay-offs" are foreseen or suspected.

Failure to prepare is preparing for failure. Coach Wooden.

Last week I met Cheryl Dorsey, president of the Echoing Green Foundation. She was the commencement speaker at Walden University's graduation. Her speech was a riveting auto-biographical sketch of her failures and the need for the next generation to "embrace failure". I was surprised to later learn it was her first commencement speech, but it was perfect. One of her many "failures' was her choice to become an MD. Her parents encouraged her and she graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School and became a successful pediatrician. Her parents beamed with pride over the family's first doctor. But Cheryl soon realized she made a huge mistake. She found out that becoming a doctor was her mom and dad's plan, not hers. Sound familiar? So recognizing her long standing failure, she followed her heart and became a social entrepreneur. Despite the monstrous investment of time and money, it was not too late to push the reset button. And her failure showed her the way. Bunko

We all fail and therefore we all learn. Failure is the greatest teacher. Failure triggers course corrections that lead to change and new perspective. Failure forces you to change your network, maybe even your mentor. Failure can redefine you. In Daniel Pink's wonderful The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, the last career guide you ever need, lesson 5 is Make Excellent Mistakes. Most of us say we take risks, or we venture out of our "comfort zones" but we really don't. Fear erects strong boundaries that can imprison our dreams and our successes.

Here's to your next fantastic failure.

Thanks for reading. John


New deadly STD: OMBYism

In my recent encounter with Father Greg Boyle, the famed gang interventionist and founder of Homeboy Industries, he quoted Mother Teresa. "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." He said the measure of our ability to care about one another will be realized "when we love more than who loves us." He has spent most of his life loving gang members and helping them put their lives back together.

In contrast, many people overwhelmed by the world around them have decided that taking care of themselves and their own immediate families is all they can do. And they have convinced themselves that if everyone else just did the same then the world would be a better place. This way of thinking has led us to a number of socially transmitted diseases. (STDs)

NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) is one of the long standing STDs.These infected people want everything just not in their neighborhood. Freeway off ramps, trash disposal, mass transit, homeless shelters, commercial development, schools, elder care etc. I remember well the families that appeared at a local City Council meeting to protest a Montessori pre-school operated out of a Victorian home for more than 100 years (Julia Child went there). The school served 76 kids! "The sound of children" was just too much for these sensitive and angry neighbors. Ultimately, the school had to build higher walls around it to better contain the laughter and pitter patter of little feet. These NIMBYists wanted better schools in the neighborhood but not next door, even when that school was there decades before their homes were built. I know it makes no sense, but that is how toxic the seemingly incurable NIMBYism disease can be. Backyard

I have discovered a vicious new strain of NIMBYism and the fastest growing STD--OMBYism--Only My Back Yard--this deadly disease triggers several brutal symptoms causing the sufferer to experience extreme self-centeredness, myopia, and ethnocentrism. These are followed by an uncontrollable penchant to live in gated communities, a significant decline in empathy for others, and an obsessive desire to maintain the status quo. OMBYists are devoted to only taking care of their back yard and their family. They have very stunted and homogenized networks. Their credo is: Love only who loves you, especially if they are like you.

The infuriating flaw with this selfish approach to life fails to recognize that a pampered family will have to live in a real  world that looks nothing like that back yard. The OMBYists superiority complex and self righteous attitude are artificial prophylactics against reality. And that the children of these infected parents breed unnecessary prejudice between their kind and the rest of the world.

Only loving who loves you is the breathing standard of living a meaningful life. Of course we love our families! Yes we love people back. But our lives will be defined by how we pro-actively broaden that circle. How we embrace others outside of our families and our clone communities. Father Greg Boyle talks about how learning to love gang members has deepened his perspective to see the other side of the tracks literally. There is no purely good and purely bad when it comes to humans and the human struggle. The world is becoming more complex. The easy way out is to define the limits of our spheres of influence as our family, immediate circle of friends and the edge of our fence lines. To over simplify the world into the good and the evil by deluding ourselves that somehow we are better than the others.

I recently met a man who wanted to make a shift from working at an elitist and highly privileged institution to a community based organization. He said his life goal is to help the "under-served" and the "less fortunate" people in our society. It sounded a bit insincere, but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. So I said, "That's a wonderful life mission. So how do you help the "under-served and less fortunate" now?" He looked at me like I called him a dirty name. He was flustered and said, "That's my goal, not what I do now!" He went on to explain how busy he is, how demanding his job is, that he has a couple of teenagers, and he likes playing golf occasionally........His words faded as I saw the letters O--M--B--Y appear on his forehead. In other words, he has no time for others outside of his backyard. No time to do anything except take care of thyself and thy heirs. He only thinks about the "under-served and the less fortunate",when he is trying to impress others and feel less guilty. Kid

Adopting the mentoring and networking lifestyle is an antidote to the onset of NIMBYism and OMBYism. While we should take care of and enjoy our verdant back yards, the world outside of those walls is so much more beautiful and filled with real people who are under-served and less fortunate. We have to break down those fences and walls. We have to create connections and relationships that add value and build  broader communities that can confront and overcome the challenges we face, by loving many more than love us.

Thanks for reading. John

 


Amazing who you know, but you don't know

For the last 20 years, I have been teaching that the primary step in networking is:

First strengthen existing relationships and then expand your circles of friends

Brushstroke circle There is an obsession with meeting new people. That new people will unlock our potential, teach us new things, and create new opportunities. And that the people we know, have met, are surrounded by, are inadequate. Even as I write this again, it sounds stupid, doesn't it?

What comes into focus is how poorly we know and explore what we have. There is an irresistible allure of the new. It's why products offer new versions. Why car makers roll out their new line-ups. It also causes many divorces. We like shiny things and our consumerism world reinforces it. But often the new is irrational and riskier. And often it is more expensive.

I am not telling you not to meet new people. You gotta get out of your comfort zones and diversify your human portfolios. You have to inject new into everything you do. But it is not your first step. It is not a step to overlook. Meeting the new, will always be more challenging, more time consuming, and less comfortable.

Why ignore the network you have and the people you know?

People I meet always underestimate their own networks. According to them, their "rolodex" is always weak and does not contain the expertise they need. After I ask a series of questions, they "discover" that someone they know well could be a great connection. It never fails. Had lunch will a former colleague this week, and he is exploring a career change. He wanted me to connect him with new people. During our meal, he admitted knowing a senior executive at a very attractive employer. I added real value to the session by saying, "Please contact him." :)Rolodex

You may be able to recall or remember things about people from your glorious present or past. And making an effort to make these recollections is a start. However, it is more likely you don't even know these people in your network. You don't know their resumes and their backgrounds. And therefore you have no idea what their networking potential is. But this is just the beginning of what you don't know about your network and how you undervalue it.

The big deal here is that your current network knows you and in most cases you have established a level of trust through common experiences. Your current network cares about you. And that creates opportunities to get authentic feedback and ideas beyond their contacts. People who know you can move quickly to the questions you want to discuss. Chemistry and comfort exist. It provides a warm platform to now get to know them better. I guarantee this process will reveal a new constellation of connections and contacts for you to explore. The other super added value here is your network can refer you to these connections, because they know you!

Now here is an ugly truth. If you have been negligent about maintaining your relationships. Reconnecting with "old friends" or former colleagues can be awkward. And the sirens of the new network beckon. But c'mon, most people want to connect and reconnect. I get asked this question all the time, "How do I reconnect with former colleagues and friends?" My answer is always the same, "Call them, e-mail them." Just make the connection and if necessary, apologize for being out of touch.They will understand. Plus you will enjoy it!

A new world of connections and opportunities awaits and many of them reside in the past. Don't leap over your exisiting network just to meet new people. It is amazing who you know but don't know. Reach out and connect!

Thanks for reading. John 


To What Do You Give Your Intention and Attention?

Had the great fortune of attending a terrific workshop on the principles of grant making, the art and science of giving away money from foundations. I know it sounds like an easy and enviable job, but much harder than you think. Anyway, had the pleasure of being trained by Bob Long, former VP of the Kellogg Foundation and Ken Gladish, former national president of the YMCA and president of the Austin Community Foundation. Both are faculty at the Grantmaking School. (Yes there is a graduate level school dedicated to this work!)

Over time I have learned that all "best practices" for effective work,  regardless of sector or industry share the same basic principles. And that these principles are often wonderful guides for your life, your career development, and your relationships.

Bob introduced us to the concepts of Intention and Attention.

  • Intention--What are/were you intending to do? i.e. Goal

  • Attention--What are you paying attention to given that intention? i.e. Measures of progress

Remember, he was talking about grants from foundations. And the point was to articulate your grant making goal and identify measures of progress. Then constantly remind yourself of that intention and those measures. Why? Because we digress, we drift, we lose focus. Like right now when your mind is wandering, finish reading my blog! :) In non-profit work we often refer to this as "mission drift". Straying from your goal AND from what you are good at. You can see the broader applicability of these ideas already.

Coach John Wooden's used the word Intentness. It was a word he made up, always apologized for this by the way, and it resides in his Pyramid of Success. The Coach taught us all that paying attention to your intentions leads us to the actions that determine success in everything we undertake.

Take these very simple and important questions and apply them to your life, your job, and your career. Apply them to your faith, your volunteer work, and your hobbies.

What is your intention? And what are you paying attention to to see that you are making progress toward your intention?

Please do not say, "I am just trying to enjoy what I do and see what happens." Because you think you are either lucky or lazy? You may be niether. As I have opined, a Wait and See strategy is the certain path to disaster.

Don't be confused. What's nice about the word intention is it is what you want and hope for. It is as macro or as micro as you desire. It is personalized and customized to you. It is as ambitious and achievable as you want. To be ambitious you need ambition.

Here's the kicker. When you have clear or clearer intentions, to which you are paying attention, you will attract opportunities and people. The gravitational pull of commonalities is powerful. Not always positive though. Negative intentions are just as sticky as the positive ones. You saw the studies of obese people and the likelihood they are connected to other obese people. Smokers too. Aimless, goal less, ambitionless people also connect and friend each other. Why hang out with people that are the same as you if you are lost or unhappy? Your network spirals up or down depending on your intentions and actions.

I am constantly monitoring my kids' friends. I love the diversity of interests and backgrounds they represent. But I watch for too much group think/peer pressure about school or courses. I want my kids to always be exposed to smarter, more ambitious, harder working people. Not everyone they know, that would be irresponsible and ineffective. But enough exposure to see different intentions and paths through their own experiences and contacts, not because their sage father says so.

And such is life, your intentions and attentions determine your networks and ultimately your mentors. The Buddhist saying applies, When the student is ready, the teacher appears. No way your teacher/mentor will appear with out clear intentions.

Your conversations, engagements, and encounters are greatly influenced by what you focused on. Without these concepts mentoring and networking are non-substantive and frustrating exercises.

What is your intention today? Tomorrow? And are you paying attention to your progress?

Thanks for reading. John



Think Out Loud and Connect!

I do this exercise with new college graduates or graduate students. They are the most confused, especially these days. I hold up my fist and point at it. And then I tell them, "I have your ideal job in my hand. It will engage your heart and your brain. It will pay you comfortably. Good dental benefits. Commute time is reasonable. It will help you grow and develop as a professional. Just tell me what it is and I will give it to you." 99% of the time they don't know what it is. That's not the point. The surprise is they don't even know what to say. They start mumbling things but almost always end with a joke. Because that's what what we all do when we don't know what to say. We try, I say try, to be funny. One of those slapstick defensive reflexes we verbalize to deflect the attention from our brain freeze. Similar to when we jokingly say, "No I meant to that," when we trip on ourselves or spill a drink. Brainmouth

It's really funny how our brain and our mouth are not connected. Accessing the grey hard drive, get the binary codes to come out of the speaker system and make sense is not always easy.

We harbor many ideas and thoughts in our minds about what we want and who we are. They rattle around between the neurons and the synapses. In the brain they seem comfortable and clever. In fact sometimes in our minds we are geniuses. However, when we utter some of these ideas with words and phrases they get garbled. We rely on our mouths to translate our elegant brainstorms into eloquence. Often it does not work and can be quite embarrassing. We forget the lips and the frontal lobes are not always directly linked.

I remember when I was talking to a very ambitious employee about her hobbies. It was a fun and light hearted, easy going conversation. I started thinking about an opportunity for her. It occurred to me that I did know what her ambitions were. So I asked somewhat abruptly, "By the way what do you want to do next?" She was horrified, froze and became inarticulate. She told me this was not fair and that questions like that could only be asked in a formal review session! I was not expecting THE answer. But to start a robust conversation about the options, pros and cons. To hear her thoughts, but I never did.

Pat head rub tummy Thinking and talking on our feet can be the equivalence of patting our heads and rubbing our stomachs simultaneously. Not easy. With practice it is always easier. With preparation it looks like it is second nature. Robin Williams' "ad libs" have been tested in private, honed in comedy clubs, and tweaked by his writers. It is the delivery that matters. But I am not suggesting you memorize anything, the best speaking is extemporaneous. Your preparation allows you to share thoughts that have been considered and certainly are not alien. 

The ability to think out loud is a lost art. When you don't know the answer, especially if it is personal, you have to demonstrate your thought process, display that you have considered the subject matter--such as your life's direction!--and honestly share a little of yourself. That would be refreshing. An authentic discussion of the challenges and issues the question or the dilemma conjures.

This is where mentoring comes in to save the day. When can you trot our your intimate thoughts? Where can you conduct your dress rehearsals and get feedback? And not be instantly criticized and judged. Mentors are the greatest sounding boards. They expect to talk to you about these raw and mal-formed concepts. Share your thoughts, questions, quandaries, and curiosities with your mentor. Expressing these thoughts as wishes, things you want for yourself is also very effective. Think out loud with your mentor, often and then listen for the feedback. Just the practice of converting your neural sparks into words will do wonders.

Doing this in isolation, by yourself, never works as well.

When people ask you things all of the time? When you know people will ask you the same questions over and over. Or questions that you ask yourself repeatedly. There is no excuse for not having answers or well-formed thoughts about your quest for answers.

In my intermittent posts on questions, I urge the readers to work on their answers. Literally verbalize them to get them to sound like YOU. To convey what you are thinking. Like an artist who dreams up new images, getting it exactly right the first time is rare. It takes a series of trials and errors to have the canvas look the way you imagined.

Last week, I asked a grad student what type of job and career he really wanted after graduation. After an awkward pause he replied, "Nothing but happiness." He looked at the ceiling and then at his shoes and then smiled impishly. He knew he was being funny, wasn't he? Just wanted him to think out loud with me and maybe we could work together on refining those thoughts and actually discover a path to his happiness.

Thanks for reading. John