Monday, March 07, 2011

A Childhood of Potential III: The More I Fail

Note: This post was not originally part of the Childhood series (here are parts I and II), but after writing, it seemed to fit in well with the themes the series was getting to. The last paragraphs were added after that realization, so be patient while reading through the discussion - it goes have a point.

Lifehacker had a post today called The More You Fail, The Higher You Can Set Your Goals. The post immediately reminded me of an interview Charlie Rose had a few years ago with John Whitehead and Bill George, where they talked about how they grew to become great leaders, starting from their military careers and through their time at Harvard and Goldman Sachs, among other places.

The interview is typical Rose-style, in that it's meant to encourage real conversation and discussion rather than trying to attack or pick at various points. The really interesting parts, to me, are how they openly discuss the extremely difficult times and failures and how they approached those times, and the mistakes they each made on their paths to success. As with all wisdom, much of what they say is intuitive and well known, but the points they make are extremely sharp and insightful.

One of the most important points made by Whitehead is that whenever a person is talking, by definition they are telling over something they know. You can't learn anything when you're talking, you have to listen. You have to ask (the right) questions of people, then listen to their responses. You also have to lead, and be willing to work without a consensus - that you can't always just go with what everyone else is saying if you don't believe that that's the right decision, that you must be authoritative - but while people always think of leaders for what they say, the true leaders are the ones who are or were able to listen before they talked. George discusses similarly that you can't learn much from winning - it is only from losing and from failing that you learn, particularly about yourself. He mentions Jeff Immelt at GE, who people think of as having this quick ride to the top - yet he was almost fired by Jack Welch at one point, before accepting a demotion and rebuilding himself and how he approached things.

George talks at one point about one of the biggest deficiencies that a person can have is forgetting to lead themselves. By getting caught up in the wrong aspects of a job or life, a person can get distracted from the purpose of what they are trying to accomplish, and ultimately this can lead to failure. Ultimately, leadership takes sacrifice, and sometimes that means a person forcing themselves out of their comfort zone. Whitehead discusses a couple debating accepting a promotion for one of them in another location, and how often they will determine that the sacrifice of moving away from the life they're comfortable with is too difficult to bear, and it's easiest to stay where they are at and pass on the chance to grow. (An ironic aside is a criticism of Elliot Spitzer's leadership skills and approach; this was well before he was shamed for his trysts with a prostitute. It fits well with the idea that those with unaddressed personal deficiencies are likely to ultimately be poor leaders.)

Near the end (about 27 minutes in), they focus on self-analysis. The most important point they stress is that without self-analysis, without the ability to see yourself how others see you, without being able to improve on yourself, you simply cannot grow and will not be able to succeed or to lead.

For some reason, none of these concepts really clicked with me while I was a kid, really. I was an excuse-maker: There was always a reason why I couldn't do something, there was always a reason something was not my fault. The Lifehacker post sums up the psychology behind this perfectly:
Take an M&M out of your pack, throw it up in the air and attempt to catch it in your mouth.
This is probably going to take every ounce of self-control you have to accomplish (at least it did for me). It's a mortifying feeling waiting for that M&M to fall, knowing you're being watched, and knowing that in all likelihood it's going to bounce stupidly off of your mouth and hit the ground at the feet of the person in front of you.
But the point of this exercise isn't getting the M&M in your mouth every time. The point is to fail in public. And to do it in a cheap, semi-spectacular fashion. Because once you know you can fail in public you'll begin to break out of your box.
I was terrified of failure - terrified of being wrong, of failing, especially publicly. I didn't realize this at the time, of course, but I couldn't bear the idea of people thinking anything but the best about me. I think this was a major portion of why I became extremely lazy at the end of my elementary school career and then worse as I went through high school: As some of my peers were increasingly a challenge to me academically, the best way to establish my superiority was to succeed almost as well or as well as them - but without even trying. I still distinctly recall our first chumash test in 9th grade, a test which was during the first class of the day, and which I had completely forgotten about, after never having taken notes and rarely listening. I quickly borrowed a friend's notes, and over the next three minutes skimmed as much as possible. He (who later was named valedictorian) complained incredulously the next week when we got our grades that all his hard work and efforts had resulted in a 94, while my quick skimming had earned me a 91.

A couple of weeks later, we had our first gemara test. I finished well before everyone else, and left the room, convinced I'd scored about 100. When I received my grade a couple of weeks later, I was completely dumbfounded. I'd failed. A kid who had never before gotten anything other than an A had scored a 63 on a test. I sat there with my Rebbe (still one of the kindest people I've ever met) for about an hour, going over the test, and in the end I recall him giving me back two points. Only later on in life did I realize he did this only to help me not feel as if I'd gotten an F, which would have been too demoralizing for me to handle. Part of me, however, couldn't accept that I'd have to put in a full effort and risk "failure" - i.e., not being the best - and I spent a large portion of the year putting in spurts of effort to get by (as a B or C student in gemara) rather than risk trying and not getting that A. Like this, I could rationalize that a 50% effort for a B was far more efficient than 100% effort for an A... and who doesn't appreciate efficiency?

Once again, I was living off of my potential rather than risking actualizing it... and giving it a limit.

(to be continued)


  1. An excellent post. So good, in fact that I'm printing it to share with my 5th grader son...when he's old enough to appreciate it.

  2. Wow, thank you. That's really flattering.

  3. Yes I emailed this to my almost-Bar Mitzvah boy. It's an important read. I'll save it for my other 2 children as well.

  4. I don't think my lack of effort in my schoolwork was related to feeling like a failure, I think i just preferred to do other, fun stuff rather than study to get a 100. I was doing just fine with B's and A's with minimal effort, so why did I need a 4.0 GPA? Of course, by the time I realized I could have been a Merit scholar, it was too late :)
    Every single report card I ever got in school says the same thing: Sara has more potential. But I was smart and did reasonably OK, so I was able to slide by. I don't really regret it, my high school years were some of the best times of my life. I'm happy I was involved in more extra-curricular activities and didn't spend the best years of my life with my nose in a book.

  5. SaraK - I should clarify - I don't think it made me feel like a failure, but it was me trying to avoid feeling like one. And I agree with just about everything you wrote for myself - I don't regret having fun and taking it easy for the most part, and the lessons learned were really valuable. But it was definitely (to me) a big issue in terms of my approach to life in general, and I wish that I'd understood it sooner.

  6. I recently read an article for class about theories of intelligence. The gist of it was that there are two main views of intelligence: the entity theory, which posits that intelligence is something you are born with, and the amount of which doesn't change over the course of your life, and the incremental theory, which posits that intelligence is something achieved through hard work, something which can be increased. Carol Dweck's research showed that entity theorists were focused on proving themselves, on performance, while incremental theorists preferred a challenge to an easy A, and were less afraid of failure. It sounds to me like you were a classic entity theorist: Dweck even discusses precisely the pattern of behavior you describe; choosing not to try, because then any less-than-perfect results can be chalked up to the fact that you haven't given it your best rather than a lack of innate ability.

  7. That's really interesting, thanks.

    What's surprising though is that while the pattern of behavior is spot on, certainly later on in life (and I'll get to that) but I believe even earlier I didn't mind specific challenges. For example, I loved to "create excitement" by delaying studying for major exams until 2am the night before - it would create a huge rush. I couldn't study any other way - it was just too boring.

    Off the cuff I thought I recalled reading recently (I wish I could remember where) about something similar, except that it posited a combination of the two: That for the most part, intelligence is something a person is born with, but it can be improved with hard work... but only to a point.

    I'm recalling something about little kids being able to change their intelligence level for a few years. I'll see if I can find it.