Giving equal time to Steve Jobs’ Failures

There are so many subjects about which to write a blog every week, but, this week, the retirement of Steve Jobs has spawned two separate blogs. The first was a celebration of his many successes. This will be about his many failures. The Wall Street Journal quoted an article written by Nick Schulz in The National Review on August 25, 2011.

Unlike Walt Mossberg, whom I quoted the other day, or the many other commentators who celebrated Jobs’ successes, Schulz focused on the fact that Jobs had many major failures along the way, including the Apple I computer, the Lisa computer and the NeXt computer. He was asked to leave Apple in 1985 and did not return until 1997. Steven Jobs failed repeatedly and publicly, and he paid in the short run. However, today, the Apple employees and shareholders are more secure and richer than they ever could have imagined. He invested repeatedly for the longer term.

That article and the reflections on Steven Jobs’ failures caused me to think about other transformative individuals are their repeated failures, as well as the many failures that have occurred in my life. Two individuals who have talked, present and past, about their failures were Thomas Edison and J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels. Edison celebrated his unsuccessful attempts to solve problems through innovation because, as he said, he learned what did not work and it helped him figure out better what did.

More interesting than Edison has been the life story of J.K. Rowling, who, after college, failed at marriage and an early attempt at writing before she finally began to succeed in her late 20’s with the Harry Potter novels. Rowling gave a commencement speech at Harvard in 2008 at which she spoke about the many benefits of failure, among them, the focus it gave future efforts, the self-confidence and inner security it generated, the wisdom it helped her developed, and the fact that it helped her separate real from “fair weather” friends.

As I have gone on many journeys in my life, I have had both mistakes and colossal failures. I failed at my first two jobs out of law school, both with reputable law firms. I made mistakes along the way as a business executive. I made investment decisions that failed. Since retirement, I have had many failed attempts to raise money for both Dossia and my film From the Rough, and, although I am more confident about success in both cases, I have actually been propelled forward by the failures.

Each failure requires careful study to understand its lessons. Oddly enough, my failure to secure traditional major studio financing for the film has taught me that the film very likely has a large underserved market that the traditional studios have ignored, the market for films directed at women and people of color. The film The Help appears to be supporting my assumption that there is a market for intelligent content directed at audiences Hollywood has left behind.

I have been told that I was stupid and naïve by people experienced in the market spaces in which I initially failed, only to find that I was getting that feedback more because I threatened an established order than that my initiatives were flawed. My health care vision has been proven right over the last 20 years, despite the fact that I was not taken seriously by industry experts when I first articulated it 20 years ago.

My unsuccessful attempts to accomplish something had the effect Rowling discussed in her commencement speech:

  • They increased my determination and will to succeed;
  • They helped me sort out real friends from pretenders;
  • They helped me seek out help and build support systems I would not have needed if I succeeded immediately; and
  • They helped me focus my life on what mattered most.

What particularly resonated with me about Rowling’s remarks was her comment about those who refuse to take the risks of failure. She referred to them as the “willfully unimaginative.” She said that they become imprisoned in a psychological world in which their fears and even their nightmares get more frequent and more intense, because they get more removed from the messy real world in which failure is an everyday occurrence.

As I call on large corporations today for Dossia, I see these people every day. I see them also in government and even sometimes in the not-for-profit sector. They experience huge stress and expend significant energy worrying about low probability events. In so doing, they increase the odds that something very bad will eventually happen to their organization, and, perhaps, to them. When someone worries about low probability risks and tries to avoid them, they usually take their eye off the ball relative to higher probability risks and end up not being able to avoid them.

It’s sad, but I see large corporations inadvertently engender risk-averse behaviors by stupidly conceived downsizings and restructurings. They announce a big layoff, take a long time to execute on it, and make everyone progressively more insecure, not just during the period of the layoff, but well beyond it. Survivors learn the wrong lesson from avoiding a layoff. They become more cautious and put their organizations at much longer-term risk.

I spent a lot of time talking about failures when I led Pitney Bowes, and getting people comfortable with the idea that, if they failed, it would not be the end of the world. I met with many people we had asked to leave the company, and I deliberately told them that there was life after Pitney Bowes. I shared my experience with failing at two successive law firm jobs, and being asked to leave the second firm.

This is a time unlike any in my lifetime, although every time period looks more stable and placid in hindsight than it was when people were living through it. The good news about a turbulent time is that failures happen more often to more people, and there is less of a stigma attached to failure. Individuals can experiment more, fail faster and more often, and find the right future path sooner and more painlessly than they could at a time when everyone is expected to succeed and failure stands out more.

We should be celebrating the intelligent and determined unsuccessful efforts of people, perhaps as much as we celebrate successes. That is why, while I commented on Steven Jobs success a few days ago, I want to make sure that I give equal time to his failures.