I’m a parent, husband, friend, entrepreneur, boss, vendor, and follower of Jesus.
Each of those have a metric for defining success. But in reality we need to define failure in order to truly define success. It’s my belief that there is a significant space between success and failure that we spend most of our time in. This space can both help us and harm us.
Using the illustration above, we can chart our actions and inactions on a spectrum of success and failure. I’d argue that most people are wired to look at this as black and white, the arrows on each side, not the line between. Either I lost 50 pounds or I didn’t. Achieving a goal is success, anything short of that is failure.
This is what I’m currently struggling with right now.
I want to be the father I never had. My goals include specifically: not abusing my kids, caring for them, encouraging them, and more. When I loose my cool and give them a harsh consequence, or yell at them I feel and tell myself I’m a failure. Because I didn’t achieve the goal. However if I were to define failure first: something like abusing my kids. Then even when I don’t attain the perfect father behaviors I’m still not failing.
Defining the land between Success and Failure
So what do we call this land between?
It’s not success and it’s not failure. Life is not black and white.
I don’t know, but I can give a couple more illustrations.
My service/consulting business took a 90% hit in revenue this summer. I’d call that aspect alone a failure. But is the business a failure? Am I a failure?
I’ve run a great business which has employed various people for 4 years. I’ve helped others experiment and live dreams they never thought they could. I did too for 6 months. I’ve been able to work from home, coach my kids’ soccer teams and experiment with new business ventures along the way. Frankly I built a cool business that afforded me the luxury of not working 80 hours every week, some weeks I barely worked 20 hours.
So that’d be a huge success in those aspects.
But I failed in bringing in enough new clients to handle the natural churn in the industry I’m in.
Failures Define Success
One cannot have success without failure. And like the yin and yang, there is a spec of failure in our successes and a spec of success in our failure. To illustrate this I’ll dig into the startup scenes current philosophy of failure. Basically they’re cool with experiments (businesses) failing as long as there is some learning happening. The spec of success in the failure of a business is the learning that happened. So Dodgeball sold to Google and later the founder Dennis Crowley left Google to found Foursquare. Dodgeball was a success in that it was acquired, but a failure in that Google killed it. The learning that Dennis acquired is partially not to sell your dream to Google, but more importantly he wanted to not sell at all. I’m certain there were significantly more learnings that were acquired during his time watching dodgeball fizzle at Google, but the lesson is that Dennis felt a sense of success and failure at the same time.
So in startup world failures can be successes as long as you harness the learning to propel you to a new success in the more traditional view of the word.
There’s no In-Between
Is this possible? Could everything that’s not achieving success be a failure to achieve that goal? The phrase that surfaces: “you’re either growing or you’re dying”. Could it instead be like the largest organ of the body, the skin. It’s both dying and growing at the same time. The skin’s goal is to keep a semi-permeable separation from the inside to the outside, sometimes it lets the wrong stuff in (radiation), or the wrong stuff out (hernia). Would we consider the skin a failure for 99.999% of the time keeping stuff out?
But in other conversations, a 0.001% failure is unacceptable. (That’s 5-6 minutes of downtime per year).
Life is too complex to be that black and white. the middle, the grey, the in-between is where we find ourselves most days. My faith heritage refers to this as working out your salvation, the belief is that we’re saved not based on what we do, but we need to improve while still here on earth.
So are we called to live in a constant state of discontent? Of not-quite-failing, but not-quite-achieving? It’s not directionless, we’re always trying to hit the mark of success but will we ever hit it?
We cannot call this part of the spectrum failure can we, are their degrees of failure? If so then there are degrees of success. I’ve failed to maintain a location independent sales funnel, but I have succeeded in providing value for my clients while location independent.
Has Zuckerberg hit his mark of success? Sure he’s a billionaire, but I doubt his goal was to become a billionaire. Very few people ever have the satisfaction of success especially in the entrepreneur camp. We seem to always be striving for something, some problem to solve. With Facebook as a public company Mark’s success could be wrapped in the current stock price, but that’s a fickle measure of success. If your business made it… if you IPO’ed and made a multi billion cash out. Would you cash in, call it a success and walk away? (plenty have) Or is there something more to achieve?
Success is a moving target
I once defined career success as making $50k in a year. This was way better than what my family grew up with, I figured that’d set my family up for future success and a life of living fine. However other factors come into play, and it’s not just inflation. And $50k is no longer enough to define success.
Lifestyle matters, and I’m not looking to own a boat and a fleet of cars, no I enjoy living and immersing myself in different cultures. Career success is now defined as can I live the lifestyle I want?
Yet it’s constantly a moving target. If success if defined by achieving goals and each time you achieve a goal you set a new one success while attained will never be obtained.
We define success by defining goals, achievable or not. these goals become the measure of success and conversely the measure of failure. So whatever word we use to define the middle it must have a directional element to it, not just an aimless middle. A moving, a growing, a heading. We need a word that describes the motivation, the struggle, the push, the drive.
I like how Jammer Hunt breaks failure down into 6 failures:
This is the really dark one. It marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum’s Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.
It cuts — deeply — but it doesn’t permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: Apple iPhone 4’s antenna; Windows Vista.
Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory — catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.
Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; forgetting to pick up your kids from school; overcooking the tuna.
Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.
Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.
So what if we put descriptors on Success as well? Eugene Eric Kim started that here.
The bare minimum indicators of a successful project.
I also call this “stretch,” because these scenarios should be hard, but attainable. These are the scenarios for which you aim. They should have about a 40-70 percent likelihood of happening if you do your work diligently.
Success beyond your wildest imagination. You are not expecting any of these to happen, but they are within the realm of possibility, and you are overjoyed if they do.
So is there room between Minimum Success and Common Failure?
In the illustration of my business, the Minimum Success would be to pay myself a wage that allows us to live at our minimum budget. the Common Failure would be to not have a location independent sales method in place. I could argue that it is more of a Structural Failure. But I still think the middle is where we spend most of our days, avoiding Structural Failures and fixing them when they occur. Dealing with Common Failures as par for the course and all at the same time achieving minimum success.
I nominate that we use the term insistent middle. Insistent Definition: “earnest or emphatic in dwelling upon, maintaining, or demanding something; persistent; pertinacious.”
I live in the insistent middle. I demand success, movement. I am persistent. I am earnest in this.
My success is never giving into failure as the end.