The success-failure fallacy

One must be God to be able to distinguish successes
from failures and not make mistakes.

— Anton Chekhov

A management consultant wrote a brief bio for his thirtieth college reunion. In it, he included the usual information: work, family, achievements. By most measures, this man was unusually successful. He was the father of thriving children, head of a respected think tank, and author of a best-selling book.

After reviewing the paragraph, however, the consultant realized . . . “Why would I write such a stilted, half-true account of my life for friends who knew me then?” he asked himself.

As a lark, the consultant decided to write a longer, more candid report about what his life had actually been like. It began:

Because I didn’t receive a single “A” in college, I couldn’t get into medical school. Instead, I worked as a lifeguard, but got fired at the end of summer. My next job, selling advertising in the Yellow Pages, was interrupted by breaking my leg badly while skiing.

This gave me three months to think about what to do with my life. Since I’d enjoyed my psychology courses in college, I thought I might try to become a school psychologist. So, I enrolled at UCLA to pick up psychology and education courses, but got kicked out of student teaching because I couldn’t get along with my supervisor.

Back to lifeguarding. Then I noticed that a prominent psychologist was giving a summer seminar at my alma mater, so I quit my job and enrolled. This experience was electrifying. The psychologist invited me to study with him at the University of Chicago. I was so intimidated by that most serious academic institution, however, that I put off going there for a year.

Just before receiving my Ph.D. from Chicago, I was given a one-year fellowship to the Harvard Business School faculty. I left there at the end of the year with almost everyone mad at me.

The report went on like this for several paragraphs. Far from being a description of a smooth, upward trajectory, it portrayed a jagged course of life events. Failures mingled with successes, triumphs with setbacks.

The consultant’s full bio was a litany of opportunities seized, others blown, jobs taken, jobs lost, personal rebuffs, standing ovations, love affairs, marriage, divorce, remarriage, making Who’s Who, getting fired, starting a think tank, making money, going broke, having a heart attack, learning piano, publishing books . . . and on and on.

His failures led to successes and successes to failures. The two were so interdependent that it wasn’t always clear which was which.

So it is in most lives.

— Richard Farson, co-author, “Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins” [& author of above bio]


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