I used to know a publisher back in the 90s who had been a high school football coach before getting into magazine publishing as a career. He shared with me an insight about failure. The moral of the story is that not all failure is the same. There are different ways that we can fail, and it is important that we look it straight in the eye so we can understand what happened and retrieve something of value from the experience.
The publisher, whom we’ll call Mike here (not his real name), was from Texas and as you probably know there’s nothing quite like high school football in the Lone Star state. If you’ve ever been to Texas you understand the meaning of “everything’s bigger in Texas.” The streets are wider, the churches larger, the football stadiums still bigger, even the sky seems bigger. High school football is woven into the fabric of the culture. Even if you don’t have kids, if you live in a small town going to home games on Friday nights is just something you do. So Mike had been a winning football coach who got recruited to be head coach of a high school team that spent many years in a row floundering at 0 and 10. The whole town lived in perpetual frustration and it just seemed their hearts were being torn out every autumn, despite practicing more, trying harder, getting better equipment and all the rest. It was humiliating.
After examining the situation it became clear to Mike what the problem was. They weren’t crummier players than the kids in other schools. There just happened to be a very small pool because there’s was a smaller school. What he observed was that they were simply in the wrong league. The solution was not a new coach or new equipment or longer workouts. Instead, the problem was resolved by placing the school in a different class, a class where they could be competitive.
Once Mike recognized this, he lobbied for and succeeded in having the school placed in the next tier down. This did not automatically make them winners. They still had to practice, develop strategies, stamina, courage and play their hearts out.
In business and in life there are many causes of failure. Talented people can be placed in the wrong job slots. Sometimes there are systems that keep people back. Sometimes the culture fails to nurture talent. Sometimes leaders fail to recognize that they have created a “can’t win” situation for many players on the team.
In at least one small Texas town a man became a hero because he came in with a new set of eyes and saw something the others didn’t see. Three thousand years ago David’s approach to Goliath was different from his peers. They wanted him to put on a soldier’s armor for that monumental and historic face-off. Instead, he set the armor aside — an unconventional move — and approached the giant seemingly unarmed except for his sling, and his confidence based on experience.
What do your giants look like?