The value of failure

May 21st
Posted by shambo  as Business, Culture, Management, Technology
Ray Farmer

Ray Farmer


Let me say this about that.

In American culture, failure is avoided like the Ebola virus.  No true American sees failure as anything but their inability to function as a relavent member of society.  Ask any kid about their heros and you are not likely to find a list of famous losers.

The incessant mental pounding into American brains of the malevolent nature of failure has had an unexpected side effect ….. the avoidance of risk.  Avoidance of risk has become so pronounced, it has spawned secondary side effects ranging from the emergence of an ‘entitled generation’, to the cancellation of the space program, to the pandemic of political correctness.  We’ve become a nation of people who have abandoned the pursuit of successs in order to avoid controversy, contention and failure.

In my experience, avoidance of risk is remarkably like (wait for it – wait for it) FAILURE!!  One of my heros  – Helen Keller – lived by the aphorism that: “Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is a daring adventure or it is nothing.”

Helen Keller had bigger cojones than most of today’s citizens of our politically correct, risk avoiding nation we used to call America.  Americans are now more accurately called American’ts.

I’m no different.  I, too, have been lured by complacency and rationalized it by believing I had accomplished more than most, rather than aspiring for true excellence.  Let me tell you a story about a guy who understood the difference between playing to win vs playing not to lose - the late Ray Farmer.

Ray was a Senior Vice President of one of the world’s largest electronics corporations.  He was a smart man who worked hard; a combination damn-near impossible to beat.  He was also my friend and mentor.  In the late 80′s, Ray chose me to lead a small team tasked with developing a way to defeat our Japanese competition at their strength – manufacturing.  He placed no constraints on me as to how to proceed.  He simply said “Figure out how to do it and let me know what you need.”

Sixty days later the Chairman-of-the-Board, the President, and the Executive Vice President, along with a gaggle of corporate hangers-on, assembled in a conference room to hear my proposal.  Ray sat in the back of the room and remained silent during the one hour presentation.  When I finished, a totally robotic, computer controlled factory had been proposed, the likes of which had never been accomplished in America.  In the late 80′s, inventing a factory with no human workers was truely an impossible misson – particularly in the 18 months I committed to complete the task.

As a loud argument ensued between the President and the Executive Vice President regarding the impossibility of my proposal, Ray continued his silence. The Executive Vice President recited the hundreds of ways the project would fail, the complete waste of funds, the damage to the company’s reputation in the press, and the inadvisability of having a ‘manufacturing guy’ lead the company’s bellwether technology program.  The President argued it was time the company got off it’s complacent ass and tried something truly ground-breaking, and if this could not be pulled off, the company was doomed to defeat by the Japanese anyway.  The Exec V.P. would not let it go until the President pulled rank and shouted that the discussion was over and authorized the project on the spot.

That night, I left the office totally exhausted, heavily burdened by the responsibility of my commitment, and looked forward to the first of many scotch-and-waters. A car pulled up beside me and the guy in the passenger seat rolled down his window.  It was the President.  He motioned for me to approach the car and proceeded to give me the most insightful, unequivical, and illuminating management direction I have ever received.  He pointed his finger right at my nose and said only three words ……. “Don’t  f**k  up.” And with that, he drove away.

That simple direction wiped away all fear of facing the ‘impossible’ task I had proposed.  My job was crystal clear from that moment on.  Or so I thought.

Ninety days later, the same crew – the Chairman-of-the-Board, the President, the Executive Vice President, Ray and the obligatory corporate hangers-on assembled in the same conference room to bear witness to our first progress report.  Ray as usual, sat in the back of the room, silent as a mime.  One hour later, I had reported that the project was ahead of schedule, met all it’s goals to date and was significantly under budget.  The Chairman and the President were glowing in their praise of their #1 ‘Tiger Team’ and of it’s leader.  The Executive Vice President sat mute through all this adulation, much to my enjoyment.

As the corporate big-wigs filed out of the room, I gathered my presentation material and prepared to leave when I looked up to see Ray in the back of the room.  I was sure I was in for more praise as he was the one who picked me for the job.

“What in the hell do you think you are doing?” His face was turning red, and I knew this was no act.  He was truely pissed-off.

“What are you talking about Ray?”  Before I could begin repeating all the good news of what we had accomplished, Ray taught me how it’s done if you want to succeed in difficult situations.

“You have not failed at anything you and your team have attempted so far.  And you know why?  Because you have not attempted anything you knew you could not accomplish.  I did not pick you for this job so you could personally succeed.  I picked you for this job to find out what is possible for this corporation to achieve.  And that, my young friend, will not happen unless you start attempting a few things that are so difficult that even you and your team of hot-shots believe are impossible.  This company is in trouble and we are counting on you guys to show us the edge of the envelope so we know how far to raise the bar.  Stop being so afraid and try something so difficult that you run a real risk of failure.”

Ray Farmer passed away some fifteen years ago, but he left me with a most valuable gift.  Failure is not to be feared.  It can be used as a valuable learning tool by anyone who uses it rather than avoids it.  Looking back on my career, I find most of the things I have really learned were not due to any successes I may have had, but in it’s failures.  Failure of course, is not the end result any of us want.  But you really can’t achieve anything worthwhile without plowing headlong through the learning experiences only achievable through failure.

And, in the words of my hero Ms. Keller, it transforms life from ‘nothing’ to a ‘daring adventure’.

And, that’s all I have to say about that.






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