Go Forth And Suck (But Then Get Better Over Time)

I’ve been preparing for a presentation to a group of relatively new hires and I keep finding myself stuck on a theme: I don’t want to talk to them about success so much as I want to prepare them for failure survival.

That’s an abstract concept.

“Go forth and suck. Bad enough to learn something, but with enough resilience to keep your job.”

Like I said, abstract.

The relatively concrete opposite – tips on how to succeed (as if there’s a single/proven method) or talking about the glories of the spoils – that somehow seems worse.

Abstractions that require effort trump concrete guidelines that invoke boredom. Or at least I find that to be true.

In one sense it captures the sentiment that “optimists invent airplanes while pessimists invent parachutes” (I stole that phrase approximately from Josh Wolfe), but it really runs far deeper.

There is no real success without surviving failures. Build the plane, I promise you won’t do it on your first shot, and bring a parachute – which you’ll understand the value of after those initial failures. Instead of pointing at the most desired outcome of “success,” I’d like to point to the tactics that help one survive the long and sometimes gory slog.

Cal Fussman recently spoke with Dianna Nyad about her 5 attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, starting in 1978 when she was 28. It wasn’t until her 5th attempt, in 2013 at the age of 64 that she finally completed the 110 mile, 53-hour trek.

I’ve heard and read about Nyad’s story before, but it hit me extra hard this time. She is a survivor at the microscale (ex. being delirious and delusional in the water, yet pushing forward), and at the macro scale (ex. refusing to quit and continue training for decades without reward).

Of all of the definitions of success, I think hers is my favorite because it captures the pessimistic acceptance of failure with the optimism of survival:

Success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.

We’ll see how successful my presentation ultimately is, but if I can convey that sentiment along with some tools to do so, I think it will work.

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