Laughing at Failure. Lessons from My Son.

You trip on the pavement and mutter under your breath “Klutz.” You don’t pass the certification exam the first time and suddenly you are in a tailspin of self-loathing. You’re driving down the freeway on auto pilot and suddenly there are flashing blue lights behind you. Ugh. 15 over the limit. “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid”.
You know you do it. Everyone does it. It’s what Shirzad Chamine refers to as the Saboteurs in our head. The biggest and baddest of them all is the Judge. According to the Judge in your head you are never good enough, smart enough or thin enough. Hmmm. So what’s this got to do with my son? And how can this help me? Here ya go.

Laughing at failure

I spent most of my Saturday watching kids participate in a state championship weight lifting competition. As I sat there for several hours watching kids 8 to 20 years old step up to a bar and lift, I realized a few things about failure. The ones who prevailed, including my 20 year old son Benson, had some key attributes.

Here they are:

1. Laugh at failure. Each participant gets three tries (attempts) at snatching a weight and three tries at clean and jerking a weight. So in all, there are 6 tries and that’s it. If you don’t do it correctly, you are out of the running. My son’s third attempt at the Snatch, the bar fell back over his head. He laughed. No sulking. No beating himself up. Oh well. I noticed that when the kids that failed went sulking off two things would happen. One – the audience didn’t clap. Two- they failed the next time up. It’s hard to get your concentration back. You’ve let the Judge in your head take over and hijack your performance. I noticed that kids who laughed off the failure came back with a vengeance in the next attempt, almost always prevailing. The lesson? Laugh and laugh often.

2. Have your posse with you. My son participated in the event in Greenville, NC instead of an earlier event in Miami (where he lives) so that he could be surrounded by his family and friends. He knew that when he walked out on that platform that there were 7 folks in that audience to cheer him on. The younger kids that were with a lifting club had a ton of support in the audience as well. Again, the kids that were there by themselves or just a parent did not prevail as often as the other kids who had support. The lesson? Surround yourself with support. Make sure you have folks that are there to cheer you on. Success or failure. Have a posse that has your back.

3. Discipline is what underlies all rituals. Even the eight year-olds had rituals as they approached the bar. Some stomped their left foot on the ground as they grabbed the bar. Some took enormous breaths as they began to lift. They all had rituals. Focus straight ahead. I was talking to Benson’s high school football coach at the end of the meet. He said he convinced Benson to give up track and take on lifting. He said that Benson has the discipline to lift even while going to college full time. It’s the same with your life. You’ve got to have the discipline to show up and accept failure as well as success. Even if you drop the bar, you’ve got to show up the next day and keep on keeping on.

4. Relax and have fun. It was so gratifying to watch these kids have fun. They would be serious and focused as they approached the bar and then, once they were successful, an enormous smile would appear when they finally held the bar above their head. It was such a beautiful sight. Watching these girls and boys radiate as they succeeded in lifting the impossible was gratifying for me. My son was the last of the men to participate because he was lifting the heaviest weight. He failed on his first attempt on the Clean and Jerk. Smile. Got up. Prevailed on the second lift. By this time the entire audience of some 50 spectators were with him and cheering him on as he attempted a personal record and heaviest lift of the competition of 140 kilos (309 pounds). He was whistling. Relaxed. Comfortable. He failed. Oh well. He went to watch the video with his coach. Hmmm. Feet were too narrow apart. He was fine. Resilient. There will be another competition down the road. It’s so similar to Scott Adams book, How to Fail at Almost Everything, as long as you are learning from your failure, that’s the most important thing. So when you fail? And you will. Make sure you are taking the lessons with it.

I think back on some of the big failures in my life. A divorce. A failed restaurant. A lost job. Keeping my sense of humor, learning from my mistakes, having my posse close and trying to stay relaxed was critical. Caving into fear is not an option. Lift that weight, Smile and Move on.

Originally published on Change Your Thoughts on October 27, 2015.

Failing towards Success.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Robert F. Kennedy

If you aren’t failing, you aren’t innovating. Wow. That’s a scary realization. I had a project go off the rails recently and I have to say that at the time I was reading, Scott Adams‘ book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It was an eye opener. Scott Adams has failed at countless projects. Video games, restaurants, internet services, Velcro Rosen bags, and Webvan to name just a few of his failures. He suggests actually being steeped in failure. If I was not in the middle of the book reading about all of his failures, my project that failed would have stopped me. I’d have thrown in the towel. I’m not meant for this. But Scott’s consistent optimism and his systems orientation showed me that failing is inevitable. As Scott said to look at “failure as a tool, not an outcome”. It’s reshaped the way I see failure. Don’t avert your eyes from failure, learn from it. Find the one little nugget of information and move on. Thanks, Scott. success

Now I’ve started reflecting back on various other projects that were less than stellar in my life. Like this blog. I write it weekly and I can never predict if more people will click to open it or not. Frequently, the subject line or title has a lot to do with whether or not someone like you even decides to open it. This becomes a delicate dance between a quirky title like Lawnmower Fairies or something more main stream like The Butterfly Effect. One Small Change Can Have An Impact. So which do you think had more opens? The second one. It’s more straight-forward. It’s something that is relatable. I’m sure you are thinking, yeah, I can handle one small change…let me see what that’s all about. On the other hand Lawnmower Fairies was published in July of 2012 and has precisely 26 opens…ever. The Butterfly Effect was published in July of 2014 and has had over 154 opens as of this morning. Big difference. I don’t write cryptic titles any more. I mean what the heck IS a lawnmower fairy and why would anyone but immediate family (thanks Mom) want to read about it? The most important thing is to learn from it. Otherwise, I could have packed up this blog two years ago and thrown in the towel.

So here are some of the secrets on how to get to success through all those failures:

1. Do. My friend, Janine quotes Yoda frequently, “No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.” Do the work. Write the blog. Contact potential clients. Raise the money. Research potential locations. Read books on the topic. Put a business plan together. Network. Update your resume. Make a LinkedIn profile. See who else sells Purple Squirrel catchers. Decide what you want on your menu. Figure out how many items you want in your product line. Decide if you want to self publish or not. Show up and do. Do do do.

2. Energy. Scott Adams spends a lot of time talking about energy. If want to be constantly “doing”, you can’t be sitting on a coach eating Twinkies all day. Think about how you are going to keep the fire in your belly roaring. Regular movement is one of the best things to keep you optimistic and motivated. There is no downside to exercise except for over doing it or the cost of equipment. Eat fuel that helps your body keep in tip top shape. You know if you eat that cream filled donut you will feel miserable in an hour and want to go back to bed. So don’t. Keep you energy stoked.

3. Reframe. Anytime you have a setback or make a mistake, reframe it. Say to yourself “Hmmm, that was interesting, what can I learn from this?” I have to say I use this when I coach. A client will say that they want to do yoga 5 times a week and they don’t follow through. Goose egg. So I say, “No sweat. What did you learn from that?” Client says, “I don’t like yoga”. Me, “Great. Is exercise still important to you?” Client, “Yes. I think I’d rather play tennis 3 times a week”. OK so now we have reframed and moved on.

4. Keep on. Keep on keeping on. It’s so easy to fall under the shadow of one small failure and decide to succumb to fear. “I’m not meant to be an entrepreneur.” “I’ll never get into that college.” “I’ll never find the right partner.” Do not sit and catalog all your failures from the last thirty years in order to rationalize why you should give up. Think about Thomas Edison and his 1,500 failures at creating a light bulb. Thank goodness he didn’t give up. Keep on.

5. Systems. Scott recommends creating systems instead of goals. So a system is getting daily movement. A goal is running a marathon. A system is eating three vegetables a day. A goal is losing 20 pounds. Systems are just habits in disguise. As Scott sees goals as limiting. Once you achieve it you are done. With a system, you are constantly updating and looking for opportunities. Take the system of daily movement. I don’t need to worry about whether it’s yoga, running, walking or jitterbugging. I just make sure I get daily movement. It’s a habit. A process with no end point. Set up systems.

6. Acceptance. Make sure to accept the failings of others. When you start judging those around you for their failures, it’s just a reflection of how you see yourself. If you think your son isn’t athletic enough or your daughter isn’t smart enough…there is a good chance that you don’t see yourself as “enough”. We are just works of art in progress. At one point, the Mona Lisa was just a few strokes of paint waiting to be brought to fruition. Let go and accept.

I’m not sure why I never realized it before but Scott Adams’ book just made me understand that we are all out here just trying our best. He was drawing Dilbert for 8 years while still working full time at Pacific Bell. He’s a real human just like me. We are all humans just like me.

5 Strategies to Optimize Your Strengths

As leaders and managers we seem to spend a lot of time focusing on everyone’s weaknesses or short-comings; very often our own. Performance improvement plans, appraisals, report cards and even weighing yourself can focus on the negative. The area that needs improvement. The areas we or our direct reports fell short. I can focus on the typo my assistant had in an email and totally overlook the project he took on all by himself, flawlessly. It’s always easy to default to picking out what went wrong in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Whether it’s the B on the report card with the balance being all A’s, remember the brownie you had yesterday when you weigh a pound more even though you also ran 10 miles or focusing on the budget shortfall when sales are way above expectations. We focus on the weaknesses and try and mitigate them.optimize your strengths
How about focusing and leveraging your or others strengths? I can remember a Marketing Director who was horrible at catching typos. Catching typos is pretty important when it comes to marketing collateral. The director was outstanding at design and implementation but wasn’t that great at details. I can identify with this. I’m horrible at details. Grammar even. So do we send the Marketing Director and me to a course on finding mistakes and typos or do we find someone who “loves” to find all the flaws? They actually find it a challenge to make sure an entire document is flawless. We can send us to courses, school and for an MBA but it’s only going to mitigate the issues. We will never be flawless. It’s best to play to our strengths and find someone else to pick up the slack on our weaknesses.

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So here is how to do that:

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1. Inventory. Take an inventory of what you are good at. In Scott Adams’ book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, he suggests recalling what you loved to do when you were 10 years old. What could you spend hours at? I can remember setting up class rooms and pretending to be a teacher or creating plays when I was a kid in our basement. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I like facilitating and coaching. Another option is to take an assessment like Strengths Finders. If you purchase the book, they give you an access code to take the assessment. My top three strengths are Strategic, Relator and Positivity. It’s good to know. Being a claims adjuster or mortician might be a bad fit. Inventory your strengths.

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2. Delegate. Figure out your weaknesses, and if possible, delegate them. I’m really fortunate that one of the members of “Cathy’s Brain Trust” (folks who give me feedback before I post these posts) is an English Major. Actually, you all are very fortunate that she is an English Major because grammar isn’t my strong suit. I also don’t have a very good handle on Excel. I can do the basics but it’s tedious to me. I have no desire to attend classes to become an Excel wiz. If I can avoid working on a spreadsheet, I delegate. So look at your team. Are you trying to make someone who loves sitting at a computer trouble shooting, try and improve their customer service skills? If they aren’t friendly and accommodating, perhaps there is someone else who is better suited to take phone calls. As any good team coach would say, put your aces in their places. Delegate your weaknesses.

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3. Dedicate. Now dedicate some blocks of time to your strengths and get into the flow. Csíkszentmihályi (the psychologist who coined the idea of flow) described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Parlay what you are good at so that you can do your best work. This is much more productive (and enjoyable) instead of trying to fix your weaknesses. It’s also a much more positive experience. Dedicate blocks of time to flow.

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4. Reflect. Takes some time to reflect on your accomplishments. From my years of coaching experience, this is something most of us don’t do. Take a look back on what you accomplished with your strengths. Acknowledge yourself for all that you have contributed to the world. Even small things can add up. Did you just run your fastest time for a 5k? Did you spend a half hour with your aging mother? Did you pay it forward by buying a latte for the car behind you? Did you make a contribution to ALS? Did you make sure you smiled at a stranger at the grocery store? All of these things add up. Take stock and reflect on all that you have accomplished.

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5. Assess. Assess your optimization of your strengths. The strengths that you have are your gifts. Make sure you are using them. Take my biggest strength, Strategic. I’m talented in creating alternative ways to proceed. If there is any given scenario, I quickly spot patterns and issues. When I am coaching or facilitating, I’m open to all options which enhances my students and clients thinking. When I am given a set curriculum that is regimented and unbending, I might as well be in a straight jacket. I suffocate. I make sure that I have an outlet for my strategic strengths. If you were a concert pianist, a toy xylophone would be an insult and unbearable. If someone enjoys people, don’t put them in a window-less office for 8 hours a day. Assess the utilization of your strengths.

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I realize that most of us can’t spend 60 hours a week on just our strengths and delegate taking the trash out for the rest of our lives. I do think you can strike a balance so that you and the folks around you can feel empowered by making sure that their gifts are being utilized on a daily basis.