Getting it wrong is always part of getting it right.
“The essence of people is imperfection. Know that you’re going to make mistakes. The person who never makes a mistake takes their orders from one who does. Wake up and realise this: Failure is simply a price we pay to achieve success.”
John C. Maxwell – Failing Forward
I don’t watch much TV, but when I do, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is on the list. Being a long time Seinfeld fan and devotee of his 1998 “I’m telling you for the last time” live show I was always going to love his next instalment, and it hasn’t disappointed. The cars are incredible, the conversations really interesting, and the coffee actually looks alright most of the time. 🙂
Recently I watched his interview with comedic royalty, Steve Martin. Steve Martin is 73 years old, funny as ever, and now reflecting on his career that started and grew in the Seventies as America was recovering from Vietnam, Watergate and generally a low point in itself. Martin’s wild antics and over the top humour created a cult following. Listening in to the conversation between Seinfeld and Martin was both a history lesson, a coaching session and a wake-up call.
It was a history lesson because we were given a glimpse into seeing these, aspirational, uber talented, and incredibly passionate nobodies do their best to carve out a path that was littered with more casualties than success stories. They showed what it was like to be committed to a craft no-one had recognised them for. They exemplified what “doing the work” looks like, and demonstrated incredible courage to get up night after night in a world of wanna be’s with just the dream of becoming somebody.
It was a coaching call because Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld are professionally funny. They don’t just do this for a job, they have become this as part of their life and lifestyle. Watching and listening in to the conversation, the questions, and the answers gave enough insight to see just how seriously they took being a comedian. Profound thought to carve out a career as a funny person. It was then, and is now, the ultimate live or die by reviews. They were even paid on ticket sales rather than an appearance fee. When you listen to the conversation you also notice the way they make humour together, share mutual respect, and value the people and the profession.
It was a wake-up call because about halfway through, Steve Martin is reflecting back on his first show and Jerry interrupted him and said, “How many laughs did you get?” Without taking a breath, Martin responded, “Not one. I was fifteen minutes into my 35-minute show and no one had laughed.” Jerry asked, “So what did you do?” In responding as the consummate professional, Steve Martin said, “I thought to myself, why not go for the full time with no laughs…” And they both laughed together at what was at the time, a monumental failure, and potentially career-ending before it had started.
Failure isn’t fatal or final. It’s just failure. Getting it wrong is always part of getting it right.
What do you do when no-one laughs? What do you do when no-one follows? What do you do when no-one responds to your passionate cry for a better future? What do you do when you fall and fail as a leader?
My annual review in 1991 was brutal. It wasn’t, but it felt like it at the time. Sitting down with my direct report to get feedback on my 21-year-old leadership style stung. What seemed like a good year slipped through my fingers in the 90 minutes as I realised that my intent was good but my execution sucked. My confidence was high but my inclusion was terrible. I was innovative but didn’t champion others. I still remember that feedback because it spoke to both the upside of my natural tendency and also my blindspots. Despite being a tough conversation it still serves me today.
Fast forward to 2015, I began two of the most challenging years of my professional life. Internal personal tensions led to external leadership challenges. I hadn’t scaffolded myself with the right margin, mentors and support. Leadership was hard, it felt like walking through quicksand. Recovery wasn’t easy because there just wasn’t the space to do it. So much of me wishes I could relive these years not for the frustration but for the way I’d lead myself differently.
Sometimes no-one laughs. Sometimes no-one follows. Sometimes no matter your best intentions and diligent preparation STILL no-one laughs. In his book Failing Forward, John C. Maxwell says “The more you do, the more you fail. The more you fail, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better you get.”
When no-one laughs, respond this way:
- Gather, reflect and challenge your perspective. How you saw what happened might only be one version of events.
- Clarify and sense check the meaning you gave the experience. We assign meaning to things that aren’t always helpful.
- Be rigorous and courageous about what learnings you can personalise and embed from your experience.
Thinking it through, as this benefits you in the following ways:
- Proper perspective and resourceful meaning give you an accurate frame of reference. You can see reality more clearly.
- Resourceful meaning and personal learnings give you a place of growth. You know where to get started.
- Proper perspective and personal learnings create a clear way forward. You can choose what to focus on next.
The Israeli Army was studied with reference to success and failure and written up by Robert I. Sutton in his HBR Article and the difference that made. The difference wasn’t the making of mistakes but the treatment of them after the fact. One group focused only on the mistakes they made. A second group focused on both successes and failures and explored what could be learned from them. Two months later the group that had discussed BOTH learned faster than the other group, one of the reasons was what Sutton calls ‘richer mental models’ of the experience.
The conclusion they came to can be summarised as:
- Having an ‘after event review’ is key to all and any learning.
- After succeeding, focus and learn from what went wrong.
- In the event of failure, use the event review to provoke deeper thinking among the team. The focus is less important.
Making this practical in your leadership will include:
- Quickly get the counsel and feedback of a trusted advisor.
- Be diligent and disciplined to process the experience in the context of it being a gift of learning.
- Write down the specific things you can change and what success looks like.
- Engage mentors, teachers and resources that will serve your growth focus.
- Set your standards high as a motivation, not a limitation. Keep going for it!
I wonder what it’s like to label yourself a comedian and then to become one, knowing that there was once a day no-one laughed and you may never have tried again. Keep leading, just get better while you go.
This is for leaders. I am for leaders.