Success or Failure?

Why do some people succeed and others don’t? …

That question has plagued people for eons. And plagued for me over the last 55 years. Too often the explanation has been an Either/Or one: some people work harder, others don’t. You see that a lot in letters to the editor, although there are far fewer of these now, and in comments online.

Since people work at doing something, by default we pretty much have a culturally assumed working definition of Success:

Success: applying one’s skills to achieve a desired goal or objective (which also produces Added Value for people other than just the Doer).

Either/Or is, for the most part, very useful.  For instance, at a fork in the road (where we usually have all the information). But it does become the plague of human thinking when it becomes our default (or lazy) response when we don’t have all the information, which is most of the time. Then it just becomes linear (or binary) thinking. It has recently been called by these last two names by various media and people online, a fact that unfortunately does not help to clarify much. In reality, these labels are all describing the same thing – our (lazy, default) thinking considers most if not all questions as if they were a fork in the road – Either turn left Or turn right; or as one of the two the endpoints of a Line (no matter how far apart); or as a Binary choice between a 0 or a 1.

It is not that simple. In dealing with people in business, the classroom, and in different cultures over the years a number of things have slowly become, at least to my eyes, clearer. Not crisp, but clearer. So, as I describe these things please have patience and follow along on this journey as I try and move from a Point to Lines to 2 dimensions to, ultimately, 3 dimensions (which is where I got really tired).

A Starting Point

It has almost become passé in the business world to talk of SWOT analyses where one looks at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Most often this occurs formally for organizations or departments. More rarely it is used for individuals in the form of reviewing ongoing performance (by one’s boss, if he/she’s good) or in a mentoring or coaching relationship. What can be good about these is identifying areas to develop (or avoid), and which directions to head (or avoid).

SWOT works for organizations as well as individuals, but only if they are followed by action and follow up. Too often I’ve seen them done only to be able to check off a box on a form being sent back upstairs, or in a long and argumentative performance review, or in an ‘animated family discussion.’

In these cases SWOTs are pointless, when they should not be. They do serve to shine a light on a really important aspect of life and the beginning of the difference between survival and success: a Skill, or talent or gift, if you will (yes, we all have more than one skill, talent, or gift, and I will touch on this a bit later). This, then, is our starting Point, one where everyone has a view, comment, or opinion because absolutely everyone has some Skills.

Drawing a Line in the Sand

A number of years ago I posted about Three Types of People. I had experienced each of these in various forms over the years, as I think most of us also have, and simply reduced my observations to a short bon mot,

There are people who climb rocks,
There are people who trip over rocks, and
There are people who throw rocks.

It was an attempt to formally recognize what many of us have experienced: there are people who accomplish things, people who unintentionally block things, and sometimes people who intentionally prevent or disrupt things.

Eventually I concluded there was more to this than just Skill or talent.

When I taught at the college level I began to realize that I had been partially wrong if not incomplete in my earlier Three Types bon mot (No, all college students do not fall into the first two types. There are indeed some college students who prefer to throw rocks at professors, but I suspect they actually don’t know the real reasons why they are in college).

I didn’t need to shrink the bon mot; I needed to expand it.

In considering various observations about success in life and career, it seemed that there were actually four phases or points of Skill Development along a path or Line from beginning to Success (It’s Not Just the 1%,The Myth of Meritocracy?).

I envisioned these developing this way,

(Skills)                           (Motivation)                  (Opportunity/Crisis)    (Empowerment)

(Single Skill Development for one person)

This picture is linear with Skill Development stretching horizontally from left to right. Some would say that it stretches from failure to success. That would be not only simplistic (and another example of Either/Or thinking), but also incorrect. That view labels a person a failure if they have no Skill.

Failure is an event, not a person (Zig Ziglar). Even successful people fail, but their Skill Development provides them with a way around the obstacle of failure – through learning and self-adjustment.

To avoid labeling people a failure (as opposed to experiencing failure events), we now need to recognize and deal with people having multiple Skills.

Stacking Multiple Skills

If you poll even a small number of people you will find a multitude of skills and talents, each of them more or less recognized and/or developed and applied. If you observe people carefully you will probably notice far more ‘skills or gifts’ than they themselves will acknowledge. One person is a craftsman, very good with their hands regardless whether it is mechanical things or woodworking; another lacks hand-eye coordination but is great with numbers (and possibly lousy with people); another is a great HR counselor but a threat to the public on the highway, etc.

Here is where we need to widen our perception for multi-skilled people and leap from the linear view above (for a single Skill Development) to a 2 dimensional view. To do this, take the table above for one Skill, tilt it on its side, and stack each additional Skill one atop another. For 4 Skills it would look like this,

(Visualization of one person’s Skills Development, horizontally, with multiple Skills vertically)

Now we can recognize a multitude of independent Skills for a person, each with different levels of development that we can then call individual Strengths and Weaknesses.

When we interview people for employment we primarily identify the needed tangible or action skills (the doing) and look for people who can fill them. At the same time we can tend to deemphasize, minimize, or possibly ignore other skills and/or attributes (often intangible ones) that can greatly affect the effectiveness of the action results.

Which brings us to this additional thought: while it is easy to develop the above picture using familiar concepts of Skill, invariably what we consider as ‘Skills’ in this category needs to be greatly increased.

Intangibles, such as temperament and personality, interpersonal skills, loyalty, ability to learn, problem solving, creativity, etc., all fit into this structure. So would concepts such as being a Doer (task oriented and fast out of the starting blocks), or a Dreamer (a visionary, finishes well but tough to get out of the starting blocks), or a Feeler.

Put these all together and we get a more complex picture of a person and a better picture of the complexity of success. If we recall the aspects of temperament and personality, a person could very well have a complex stack of ‘Skills’ from over 400 possibilities.

This perspective can work for one person, in isolation, which might help them feel more comfortable with him/herself. But that is not where we live or work.

Paving the Path to Success

Imagine now that one is identifying and connecting people (each with our little ‘Stack of Skills,’ above) for a specific purpose or mission, be it institutional, organizational, or departmental. We identify the skill/talent/attribute requirements and attempt to find people through an interview and reference process that fit the bill (of Skills), hoping not to have overlooked any weaknesses or lack of skills that would impede the purpose or mission.

And sometimes we miss. First off because we most often focus on identified strengths and demonstrated expertise to fit the bill, and second off we don’t focus on the Missing Information of either other strengths or weaknesses that might not fit so well. We often end up with a group or team that can be strong in only one or two areas.

What we should be aware of is that we are paving a path to success with building blocks of multi-skilled people who should complement each other not only in multiplying strengths but also in covering weaknesses, with an underlying foundation of their ability to continue to learn and grow. One can also consider this a 3 dimensional structure, which can look like the following,

(3D view of Skills Development horizontally, differing Skills of different development vertically, for a three person group)

Now, consider what helps determine success. Multiple factors, I think, beginning on the individual or Personal Level,

  1. Skill evaluation (horizontal). Being honestly able to assess if I have a particular skill, talent, or attribute. Do I need it? This is realistically asking one’s self the Repugnant Question: “Is something I am doing (or not doing) contributing to my current (good or bad) circumstances?”
  2. Skillset evaluation (vertical). Being honestly able to assess how one’s current skillset (multiple skills) measures up to the most likely and dynamically changing necessary skillsets. Do I have all the Skills I need? Do I need to acquire and develop more?
  3. Motivation evaluation (2nd box to the right in a Skill). Am I happy where I am in my Skill? Do I have the motivation to develop it? Do I need to develop it?
  4. Opportunity evaluation. Do I recognize opportunity when I see it? Do I seize the opportunity?
  5. Coaching/Mentor evaluation. Do I have one? Do I need one? (Yes)
  6. Growth evaluation. Do I seek growth and learning, or avoid it?

Then come the group or teamwork questions.

  1. Do I know and understand the purpose and mission of the group?
  2. Do I know my role in the group? Do I understand how they depend upon me? Do they understand how I depend upon them?
  3. How do group and mission/purpose needs help me answer my personal questions 1-6 above?

To really test this construct against reality, try seeing if it fits your marriage. How did you decide whom to marry? What missing information during dating/courting began to manifest itself during the first, say, 7 years, and how did you adjust? And how did your spouse adjust to learning more about you? (Here I am asking you to ask yourself the Repugnant Question).

Then take it one step further and apply it to parenting. (Ok, this is perhaps a stretch because while you can’t pick your kids and their developable skillsets (temperament, personality, tangible skills, etc.), you are in charge of raising and developing them.)

And finally, remember that an organization is not a static entity. It is more like a living body (which is one reason why a corporation is legally considered a ‘person’), and like a living body it requires internal growth and healing mechanisms. Cells multiply, function, and die, and people come and go in an organization. And during growth cells develop and multiply in functionality, and people remaining in a organization must continue to learn and develop.

Bottom Line

I think my perspective comes from being one of the “(unintentional) Early Adaptors” of what is now described as “episodic careers.” Today that implies being able to pivot to a different career track in an age of disruption and dwindling opportunities. As I experienced it, however, it was more of moving to a new and challenging opportunity rather than moving from or away from a dwindling or stagnating one. It involved changing disciplines, companies, industries, and even cultures. In the process I observed cases of successful transitions or pivoting, cases of failed ones, and ample cases that lacked even considering trying one. Those experiences solidified much of what I have presented in this blog.

There is another variable playing out here, however, that very few people recognize or can articulate. In fact, while until recently I could describe my perspective on success and the increasing wealth gap, I couldn’t put a finger on an underlying explanation. It was as if we had two camps bickering (or worse) with one another: the 80% versus the 20% (including, most despicably, the 1%) with no understanding of why. Both sides are absolutely convinced the other side is doing (or not doing) something causing the rift, without considering something’s missing. This is Missing Information leading to avoiding the Repugnant Question (and Conclusion). It took a fortuitous gift of a book that revealed and illuminated a real explanation.

The book is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Once I finish it there will no doubt be a more extensive blog post, but for now the following snippet will have to do.

Haidt is a professor and psychologist who spearheaded the development of Moral Foundations Theory, which as I read further has a direct relationship with Values as I use them in this blog, so right away this is very interesting. The Theory proposes six ‘foundations’ that primarily drive peoples’ behavior. (They highly resemble another blog bon mot, Attitudes that Become behavior by Choice, thus becoming even more interesting). The two foundations of interest here are first, the Fairness/Cheating foundation, and the second is the Liberty/Oppression foundation. The question to ask is, ‘What is your attitude about Fairness and Cheating?’ Or, ‘Where do you prefer to lean on the scale?’ The same questions apply to Liberty/Oppression.

The research studies indicate that the love of political (and social) equality rests on the Liberty/Oppression foundation rather than on the Fairness/Cheating foundation, and the Fairness/Cheating foundation is primarily about proportionality! In other words, people whose moral attitudes (Values) lean towards social equality are primarily based upon the Liberty/Oppression foundation. It appears these people are primarily concerned about outcomes and the widening wealth gap triggers concerns about oppression; it is not surprising that the research shows these people tend to be among the liberal left. On the other hand, people whose moral attitudes (Values) lean towards social proportionality are primarily based upon the Fairness/Cheating foundation. These people are primarily concerned about relationships and processes and want to see cheaters punished and good citizens rewarded in proportion to their deeds; it is not surprising the research shows these people tend to be among the conservative right.

When we are talking about the reasons for the widening wealth gap we therefore need to be aware of multiple factors. Which foundation (Value) is the primary driving force for a person’s attitude: Liberty/Oppression or Fairness/Cheating, for instance? (There are other foundations, but that is for another time). And where on each foundational scale do they fall?

The popular but simplistic view that someone’s failure (an outcome) is primarily due to other people with intentionally well-developed skills taking something (i.e., Cheating) from those with no skills or poorly developed skills but little or no motivation, or removing an opportunity before someone else could respond to it (all processes), is predominantly wrong.

Yes, there are jerkholes in the world that behave exactly like that, but that does not translate into all successful people must be behaving the same way.

Failures can arise from not having a particular skill, or more likely from being insufficiently motivated to identify and develop it, and/or missing opportunities, and/or being sufficiently risk averse as to avoid opportunities. Alternatively, one can lack a skill and yet still push forward too far. Take Icarus, for example.

In business I experienced people in each of the four phases of Skill Development, but often in the lower two. Some of these were customers (where it was sometimes wise to let a competitor have them), some were peers (where we often have to work to complement each other), and some were upstairs (ah, the joy of learning how to manage your Peter Principle boss). In teaching college I sadly experienced people who also fell into these lower two phases, in the classroom as well as in administration (recall my earlier extended bon mot, “Those who Can, Do”).

In large part, I think the widening gap in politics, social structure, and wealth can all be traced back to a perfect storm of a number of Fundamental Principles: a lack of understanding (Missing Information) of what is going on, a subsequent rush to judgment (Fixing the Blame and Gap Theory), both aided by a fear of being complicit in the process and/or outcome (thus avoiding the Repugnant Question and Conclusion).

So, if we keep doing what we’ve always done, it should come as no surprise that we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten, but really don’t want.

It is human nature to avoid change until the pain of not changing becomes too great.

We as individuals are Agents of Influence and if we want group and societal changes we need to begin with ourselves (Success), and not expect society to change so we can get comfortable remaining the same (Failure).


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 03: The Peter Principle, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 09: Doing, 11: Growth, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career, Gap Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Success or Failure?

  1. Jennifer says:

    Really good post, Jim. Loved your bottom line: “So, if we keep doing what we’ve always done, it should come as no surprise that we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten, but really don’t want.” Boom!


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