Re-Defining Failure Is Not The Same As Success

It’s been an interesting couple of months. And for those of you who have been kind enough to pass comment on my blogging absence I offer thanks. And only poor excuses.

I celebrated a milestone birthday a couple of weeks ago. An event that gave me a moment to pause. Or perhaps two.

As a species, we like living but hate aging. An example of cognitive dissonance that trumps all others. 

To exist, after all, requires both. A truth that becomes clearer as one does more of each of them.

In truth, this realization is less the result of age than experience. Experience being the sum total of all that we have lived, seen, heard and learned. 

Most of which is provided by others.

If our view of our own lives were based only on what we experienced first hand, our evaluation of how we are doing would be both kinder and narrower. The only measurement of progress being our own intrinsic drive to grow.

The purity of that scale, however, denies us a broader context of what might be possible. Whether provided by the inspiration of the achievements of others. Or the evidence of history that as a species we have almost limitless potential.

Because once we have satisfied life’s most basic requirements - food, shelter and procreation - the rest of life becomes a journey of exploration. 

Of ourselves, to begin with. 

Followed, hopefully sooner rather than later, of the world in which we live.

That exploration is filled with cognitive dissonance. A logical inconsistency in our beliefs. The first of which is provided by parents. Whom we see both as perfect in their command of the universe. And flawed in their unwillingness to do only what we want.

Parents, we come to discover, are people too. A realization that arrives, for many of us, with a price on its head. Taking with it security, confidence and trust. In my case, I worked for 40 years to reconcile the image of a father with my reality of mine. A challenge that for a while I decided came at too high a price. The resolution of which was a ten year detente. In which I saw him as dead. And he gave me no reason to think otherwise.

That experience I mentioned before brings with it two things. An awareness that we are not so perfect as we think. Nor others so flawed.

A realization that comes too late for many people.

The cause of which is an extraordinary investment in what Jon Elster describes as adaptive preference formation. The retrospective justification by which we define a failure as success.

In the living of a life, the lines between true failure and the willingness simply to throw away a dream for expediency sake become impossibly blurred. We are what the journey makes us. Each step a decision that can change the course of that life. Including the chance to go back and try again if we wish.

But in the running of a business, every decision makes the journey increasingly narrow. And the outcome of that journey increasingly consequential to the lives that are impacted by the direction a company takes. 

The weight of which makes the reactive, short-term management of many businesses even more confusing. The short-term cognitive dissonance between their statement of intent and their actions having profound long term consequences on their ability to evolve. 

The ultimate consequence of which is extinction or re-invention.

For the established business, re-invention is always expensive. And, if guided by the same adaptive preference formation that caused the re-invention to be necessary in the first place, usually fatal.

For unless the habit of justifying failure as a planned outcome is broken, the result will be only a different kind of failure. One that sees luck as a resource and hope as a strategy. A waste of two elements critical to any successful journey.

Success is defined by what we achieve in the context of what was possible. 

On a business level, that is easier to achieve when our standards become absolute, and our willingness to justify our own actions less so.

On a personal level, it is easier to achieve when we see ourselves and others as differently but equally flawed.

Today, I know one thing for certain.

My father reads my blog. 

As a measurement of success that might be my greatest achievement. 

And his.