Learning VS Failure

Lee Eason's first karate tournament

Watching someone go from confident to frustrated to outright failure is painful.

I grew up doing Karate. That’s me on the right in the photo above scoring a point in my first ever tournament. I think I was ten years old or so.

There are two basic types of karate tournament: Open and Closed. The school my dad ran for many years was an American Karate school, and we participated in Open tournaments where anyone from any style could come and compete as long as they followed the rules about where you could strike and how hard you could hit. Closed tournaments, on the other hand, only allow participants who share a style, like Taekwondo, or even from a certain chain of schools all run by the same company.

Over the years we saw many young, capable, determined folks from Closed systems come and try to compete in Open tournaments. For years they had been winning their matches. Their teachers assured them they were the best they’d ever seen, and that nobody could ever beat them if they kept studying their style (and paying their monthly dues). They came to prove to us that their style was better, or maybe to prove to themselves that what their teachers were telling them was true.

They got annihilated almost every time. Even as a kid I could see shame and even betrayal on thier faces. I watched my father try to encourage some of those folks to use the experience to learn and grow, and I like to think they did.

A promotional shot my dad I did for a magazine article

Those people didn’t lose because of a lack of passion, effort, or faith. It wasn’t that our style was better, because we came from lots of different styles. It wasn’t that their style sucked or that they were bad at it. They lost because they were unprepared for the environment, and they couldn’t evolve fast enough to overcome it. It was Darwinism compressed to a three round fight.

This happens in our careers. You take on a new role or you get a new boss, and you feel the world slipping around you. Rumors about you start to circulate and your boss is signalling that you’re not going to get that bonus you wanted. You want to find some explanation for why things aren’t going well, and sure maybe you made a mistake here or there but there’s so many other factors that are not your fault. You want to blame the system, or the injustice of how you’re being treated. You resent the people giving you negative feedback.

The most likely hard truth is that you are failing to adapt. Maybe you lacked self awareness, or perspective, or discipine and will. We don’t naturally accept fault. Our ego drives us to want to assign primary blame to external factors or other people, but that path blocks you from learning and improving.

I think bad managers and bad coaches perpetuate these kinds of situations - they’re like the Closed system teachers in a way. As a leader I feel like the most humane, kind thing I can do for someone I see struggling like this is to be completely open and honest with them. When I’ve mentored folks who seem in the midst of these circumstances I sometimes encourage them to stay until they learn the causes and effects that led them to that point. Running to another role before you learn will just carry that baggage with you and often set you up for another fail.

Ultimately, every failure you experience is another lesson that can improve your intuition and set you up to be more valuable to your team mates in the future. Whether and what you learn and improve is entirely up to you. It’s a function of your attitude and self awareness.

PS, that’s another reason to hire for attitude above all else.

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