The Utility of Futility: Your Return on Investment Post Mortem and the Resurrection
There is no such thing as a ‘traditional’ success story; in fact, some of the most successful endeavors in the history of humankind have grown out of, apparent, abject failure.
Witness Tom Brady, a sixth round draft pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, who has, since, written his name onto the very short list of legitimate candidates for the title of ‘best quarterback in football history’. (Spergon Wynn is not walking through that door.) Abraham Lincoln was a failed businessman, before becoming the greatest president in the history of the United States. (That is not a conversation.) Jesus Christ was put to death by the Roman authorities, execution by crucifixion being then viewed as the ultimate, and final, insult; and, whether you believe that Christ was raised bodily or not, he has transcended death by the perpetuation of his legacy through the Roman Catholic root church, and other churches.
Generally speaking, there are two transparent reasons that tend to explain why initial failures can be the springboard for later successes:
- The failure became an inspiration to the failure, such that the one who has failed becomes intensely motivated, and so outworks his competition.
- The apparent failure was always good, or ‘great’, to begin with; but, no one ever noticed, or ‘society’ was not yet ready to acknowledge the apparent failure’s novel skill(s).
This latter line of argumentation places stock in the underlying, otherwise unsuspected, talent of the apparent failure; the former line of argumentation indicates that the failure’s motivation to succeed directly derives from his failure, or the judgment of failure, with which he has been branded. In combination, this sort of jibes with the general notion of the main ingredients for success that people point to: hard work and dedication, coupled with natural talent, will make a (great) man (or a lady) out of you yet.
Careful businesspersons constantly make themselves aware of their return on various investments. The overarching thesis here is that time spent on business items (be they substantive (drafting a legal brief) or ancillary (drafting a blog post)) should yield a valuable return, outstripping the cost of production. On a macro-level, attorneys create discrete goals, geared to moving their practices forward, generally, across several areas. After a pre-determined period of time, the prevailing notion is that the attorney should sit down, and decide whether or not the established goals have been achieved. This is the sort of return on investment analysis alluded to above.
Now, the easy temptation (also, because it’s a time saver) in figuring return on investment is to label goals as merely met or unmet, to decide whether, in given instances, there has been a success, or a failure. Failures are shamed, put away. Successes are continued, or expanded, in the light of day. This method, however, is an oversimplification, and ignores the practical lessons referenced at the genesis of this post.
Instead of merely determining, starkly, whether you have been a, black-or-white, success or failure in meeting your goals, dig deeper. If you think you’ve failed, how close did you come to achieving your goal? (Were you 80% of the way there, or 35%?) Would it have worked out to be a success if you gave it more time, or if you tweaked a small part of what you were doing? What circumstances attained in your life and/or practice at the time you were trying to achieve a goal that led, even indirectly, to the determined success or failure of the endeavor? Was cost at issue? (If so, Was there a cheaper way to accomplish your goal?) Did you bite off more than you could chew? Would your endeavor have been successful if you had a team working with you/if you engaged some of your colleagues to help you?
Apparent abject failures can only be converted to successes when you know the machinations that led to the creation of the perception of the exercise as a failure. If you can ask enough questions to get to figuring out what the tipping points are, that have occasioned the ‘failure’ of your endeavor, you’ll be far more likely to get after whether a change to your approach can convert your apparent failure, into a rousing success.