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Failure is the Key to High Performance

In the early 1990s, sports drink manufacturer, Gatorade, ran one of the most iconic series of advertisements that have featured a sportsperson. Visuals of American basketball legend #MichaelJordan, at the height of his superstardom, playing the sport with children, appeared on billboards, magazine back covers and prime time television across the world in the series with the tagline Be Like Mike. Indeed, for about two decades, every kid in the world who picked up a basketball, and some who had never held one in their lives, wanted to be like Mike. ESPN described it as ‘one of the most famous commercials of all time.’ 

Michael Jordan pushed the physical boundaries of the human body like no other basketball player ever had. If you have not been as fortunate as I in seeing him live from the court side, watch him on YouTube taking off from the free throw line as he delivers hundreds of impossible dunks into the distant basket, 23.75 feet away and 10 feet up. His progress can only be described as a flight path. Jordan won an incredible six NBA (National Basketball Association) Championships for the Chicago Bulls, and was the MVP (Most Valuable Player) in each of those championship finals. 

But it is not his jaw dropping achievements that we focus on here. It is actually his failures that are far more interesting. Understanding what those failures led to, is the key to unlocking their success.  Jordan once famously said: ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’

Reflect on your own career. Difficult as it may be, focus on a moment you want to forget. As we explained last week, ignore the uncontrollable external factors that may have had something to do with your negative experience. Ask yourself honestly what could YOU have done differently under the circumstances. And then learn from that and work on it so that next time you have a similar situation at work or your personal life, you handle it differently. The outcome will, without any doubt, be different. 

Let me tell you a short personal story. At one of the high points of my career when it seemed that I could do no wrong, for a while it all fell apart. I had a new high profile job that I had taken over from a boss who had been in that role for over a decade. He was a legend in the company, and had recently got promoted. So he was still my boss. I wanted to do things differently as the market realities had changed over the past decade so the business needed to transform itself to face the challenges. But my (ex and present) boss didn't want to change what had worked so well, and decided to block every move I made.

Over the months I kept getting more and more frustrated but continued to implement the changes I could. When he found I wouldn't stop, the interference grew. One day I was called into his cabin and told something that was absolutely unacceptable and deeply personal. That day I lost it. I lodged a formal complaint up the chain of command. The result was my boss got moved to a less high profile role and eventually left the company. I was offered the challenge to build an exciting new business within the company on another continent. If I had stuck to the previous role, my career graph may perhaps have been different. It is one of those things we never find out in real life. 

Did I make a mistake in reacting negatively to a personal attack? Not at all. I would do that again. Where I failed was in letting the situation escalate to the point of no return. If I had walked into his cabin a few months before, and sat down to have a rational discussion with the boss I had reported to for a decade and-a-half, we could have together engineered a very positive outcome. We didn't, and to be brutally honest, we both lost. I did learn from that failure and never again allowed myself to let a situation get to that point. 

Life, as I keep telling my clients, always has Two Roads. In my new role I had significant success and built a profitable line of business. It took me on new paths I would never otherwise have traversed. The reality is that we all fail at one point or another. Failure is important not for the negative outcome it represents in the past or the present, but for the success it assures in the future if we learn from it. 

We may not all play in the NBA, or defy gravity and fly through the air, but at work and in our personal lives, we can all #BeLikeMike

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