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Picking apart your success

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Way back in the mists of time (well, last summer, and you can read about it here), I wrote about the importance of embracing failure - the word, as well as the deed. We all fail, perhaps more regularly than we care to admit, and that’s OK, as long as we learn, move on, and don’t repeat the same thing. But just as it’s vital to learn from failure, it’s also vital to criticise success.

Criticising success is not about ‘having a go’ at successful people - there is enough of that around already. It’s about criticising your own success; challenging the reasons why you succeeded, and being really honest about your own involvement in it. Enjoy your success by all means, but don’t let it run away with you - because you might trip yourself up.

On our training courses, we encourage failure. Failure is easy to learn from; it’s obvious that something has gone wrong, and we create an environment where people can do that without fear. A far trickier area is when groups genuinely do well; when they exceed their own (and our) expectations, and struggle to be self-critical.

This creates a few problems:

We’ve nothing to learn

Why should we try to learn from success? If we’re already doing it well, let’s just carry on, do it again and again, and keep reaping the rewards. Well, possibly, but there are at least two major problems with this.

Firstly, you might have been lucky. It happens. If you put a big bet on red, and it came up, you’d have to be extremely foolish to decide that you should continue with that strategy in perpetuity. Look closely at what you really contributed and be honest with yourself. Was your success down to an unbeatable strategy, or was it (at least in part) a fluke?

Secondly, things change. Next time, it’ll be different. Customers change. The competition catches up. Your previous outstanding success might (unfortunately?) become the base expectation of your boss. Repeating the same thing is standing still, and, if you do that for too long, you’ll get overtaken.

We can ‘get away with it’

There are many, many clichés in this area. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But sometimes, you need to. The wheel has been “reinvented”, many many times - imagine a Bugatti Veyron shod with simple cross-sections of tree trunks. If we’d said that we were happy with the performance of tyres even 50 years ago, the world would be a very different place.

Discontent with the status quo is a major driver of innovation. I wouldn’t be writing this, and uploading it, from a train, if we’d been content with the typewriter.

We’re brilliant

Well, it might be true - we do work with some fantastic people. But, let’s be honest, none of them are so fantastic that there is no scope for improvement at all. Indeed, it’s at this stage where you need to be more brilliant than ever - because the next stage of improvement is going to be so much tougher. The ‘low hanging fruit’ has already been picked, so we need to struggle right to the very top of the tree now.


Be pleased with your successes. Enjoy them. But don’t wallow. Tomorrow will be different; tomorrow is a new game; and the real fun in success is in finding many, many ways to have it.

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