Success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone, creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
- That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
2. That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
3. That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power.
That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away.
This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Respecting elders or tradition, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. Anglo American which owns 85% of De Beers Group, the premier diamond company in the world has an entire department, headed by one of the most brilliant men that I have ever met, Clem Sunter to do Scenario Planning. I had the honor of being a co-speaker with him at a WMO Conference in Pretoria. Clem Sunter and his team conceptualize both opportunity and threat scenarios to enable Anglo American to prepare for them well in advance. I strongly recommend that you read Clem Sunter and Chantell Illbury’s book, “The Mind of a Fox”, to understand what Scenario Planning is and how critical to survival and development it is for individuals, companies, people and countries. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
That is what passion is all about. Let me try to describe passion by starting with what it is not. Passion is not ‘interest’ or ‘liking’. It is obsession. Single minded obsession about the thing that you are passionate about which enables you to invest your best in the pursuit of your goal. It is not about major investment. It is not about significant investment. It is about total investment. All your time, all your energy, all your money, all your thought, feeling, emotion, effort, sweat and tears; everything. People who are passionate live, think, feel, sleep, dream, wake and work to achieve their passion. And nothing else. The issue of ‘nothing else’ is very important. This is a checklist for those who want to test and see if they are passionate about whatever they think they are passionate about. See how many of these things you can tick off in your life. If you miss even one, then to that extent you are not passionate. You may be interested. Even very interested, but you are not passionate. Believe me, that is often the line between success and failure. It is your choice and you are responsible. Nobody else.
To be passionate is not to have a Plan B. Plan B is your insurance, it is your safety net, it is your fall back. Passionate people don’t need it because they don’t intend to fail. They have total commitment. See this clip of the lioness attacking the zebra. That is total commitment. She has no Plan B. She doesn’t let go even when the zebra somersaults and lands on top of her. A zebra that size is at least 200 kilograms. Imagine that landing on you and yet you don’t let go. That is passion and when you work with that kind of passion, there is only one result. Success. So, no Plan B. I have worked like this all my life and today at age 63, I don’t have a single regret about living this way. As a matter of fact, I am in the process of starting a new phase in my life being a mentor to anyone demented enough to want me as a mentor. That’s my payback to those who invested their time and effort in me. Many have passed away, but they would be happy to know that I am carrying their contribution forward. They wouldn’t want it any other way. When people ask me why I don’t have a Plan B, I say to them, ‘Because I don’t plan to fail.’ That is not an arrogant statement. I say that because I am totally committed to what I do and have total faith in the help of Allahﷻ. He never let me down and I am content and thrilled.
If you need to be woken up in the morning; even if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are not passionate. If you need to be reminded, you are not passionate. If you need material rewards, the praise of others, designations and titles, medals and awards; if you need anything external, you are not passionate. If you are satisfied with your output, you are not passionate.
Passion is its own payment, its own reward. This is essential to understand and experience because otherwise you can’t sustain passion. Ask where you are likely to find Usain Bolt on the morning after he received the Olympic Gold Medal. The answer is, ‘On the track.’ Jane Goodall was passionate about chimpanzees. She studied them, worked with them, lived among them and died among them. That is passion. Passion is to have what I call Positive Dissatisfaction or Positive Stress. This is not the stress that comes from the conflict of goals, emotions, fears and desires. This is the excitement of always trying to do better than you did before. Not because someone is pushing you. Not because someone is watching you or monitoring your actions. If you are passionate and work with passion, you will find yourself surrounded with satisfied people. That will be your biggest challenge. The biggest danger. The biggest incentive to relax and become complacent. You will not be walking through disapproval but through huge approval and appreciation. People will praise you and extol your virtues and applaud your output. They will tell you that they never saw or experienced anything as good as what you did. They will tell you that you changed their lives, their work, their belief in themselves. They will tell you that they never met anyone like you and that you are the best. The passionate person appreciates all that and is grateful, but he will never become complacent. He will never be satisfied and say, ‘I have arrived.’ For the passionate person, the journey is the destination; the race is the winning. Not some finish line. Passion is its own reward. Passionate people take joy from the effort. They do because they are. They are because they do. They do because they are trying to see what the best that they can do is. And nobody ever knows the best that they can do.
Having said all that, it is not that I succeeded in every endeavor. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the technique that I learnt early in life; to objectively analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What I intended to convey was less important than what I did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. If I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. That is why work produces stress. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
The strange thing in life is that organizations want people to enjoy work, to give their best, and to maximize effort and productivity. But the messages they give are negative. Let me give you an example. Many organizations have a ritual called TGIF: Thank God it is Friday. This is a small party at the end of the workday on Friday where all employees gather and have some eats and some fun together celebrating the fact that, yet another week of work is behind them. I first heard of this custom which was imported into India with IT companies that set up shop in Bangalore. We Indians are the world’s greatest mindless imitators. Promptly, many Indian companies picked up this practice and even went to the extent of advertising it as a perk in their recruitment spiels.
I was speaking to a friend of mine who was the promoter of one of the early IT companies in Bangalore that had this TGIF custom.
I asked him, “Do you really want people to be saying ‘Thank God it is Friday?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I said to him, “To me, if someone who works for me says that he is glad the work week is over, it is a danger signal. It means that the work the person is doing is not meaningful or enjoyable and that somehow, they got through it and now that it is over, they are happy to go home for the weekend. If I had to have a party, I would rather have one on Monday morning called TGIM. And I would work very hard to create an environment where people would actually love to go to work.”
“You are a real spoilsport,” said my friend, jokingly. “You know, I never thought of it that way!!”
Take another case. You have a salesperson who is magical. She or he is an inspired salesperson. They can sell the Buckingham Palace to the Queen and many times they do. They work very hard and exceed all targets. So, at the end of the year, you give them a reward. You send them on a two week, all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas. Most organizations do the equivalent of this. Now let us analyze what you have done.
You achieved two things: Firstly, you were successful in getting your best salesperson off the street for two weeks and that will show up in your first quarter results. Secondly and even more importantly you gave a strong subconscious message, that you believe that work is actually unpleasant. But since this person managed to hang in there and do it well for twelve months, you are now paying for them to do what they really want to do and enjoy doing; roasting on the beach in the Bahamas. So, I say, give them the money and let them do whatever they want with it but don’t take them off doing what they love to do.
Consider the alternative. Passionate people who love what they do, enjoy every minute of it, find it fulfilling and would pay you to do it if they had to. What kind of results do you think you can get if you create workplaces and work that can give this to those who perform it? And before you accuse me of fantasying, let me give you an example. All missionaries work like this. Many spend their own money and endure a lot of hardship, to do the work they do because the rewards of their work are clear to them. The challenge is to create this sense of meaning in work.
Just to close the point I am making here; a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in education that is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for.
It is essential for one to take stock from time to time to see if they are achieving what they set out to achieve.
Which brings me to the final question: what is a good goal?
A good goal in my view has two essential ingredients:
- It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
- It is big enough to scare you.
A goal that is not scary will not generate the energy that we need to achieve it. It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations. People rise to high expectations. In my life, whenever I have experienced meaninglessness, low energy, and passivity, it has always been because the work was too easy, the goal not big enough. My antidote to tiredness, lack of focus and attention and stress in life is to create a big, scary goal. When you are walking in a forest and you come around a bend and see a tiger sitting in the middle of the road, adrenaline pumps into your blood. You are all attention. You turn around and run like hell. You are not bored, inattentive, or tired. Instantly, you have all the energy and focus that you need, and you passionately try to get away from the tiger. For all you know, the tiger is probably still sitting where he was, having a good laugh at your expense. But you are not waiting to find out. That is the key. Create the tigers that will make you run.
It’s true that tigers are also cats. But the resemblance ends there.