Risk and Failure

“I finally got around to reading your interest card,” said Andrall Pearson former President and COO of Pepsi Co. and my professor during a second year course at the Harvard Business School.  His quip came as he leaned on my desk with hushed tones moments before class started.   The card, an arcane pre-Internet system – think index card – held a few sentences authored by students to convey our interests to professors.    On my card I’d divulged my dream of running an emerging business.  That day the class was scheduled to discuss a 1980’s-style emerging business, Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT).   OAT was founded in 1978 by a high school anthropology teacher in her three-story house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   My little visit from Andrall was my heads up, referred to as a soft-call, that I would be leading the class’ discussion that day.  I had about a minute and one-half to prepare.

Interest card or not my dream has always been to run a company.    This dream has led to all sorts of crazy experiments that make my career look like a kaleidoscope; beautiful glass pieces that can appear in unity as well as in chaos at various twists of the cylinder.

A dear friend of mine gave me outstanding advice just prior to my embarking on my dream…starting a technology services company.    As I traverse transition I believe that her remarks hold sway there as well.  She told me this story….

Her dad ran for political office in the D.C. area.  I can’t recall if it was for the US House or for a state-level representative seat.   It doesn’t really matter.  The punch line is that he didn’t win the race.  Despite this disappointing outcome for her dad she went on to describe how people treated him differently from that moment onward.  The fact that he had stepped forward to act in a way that was meaningful to him; that he was willing to envision change; that he was able to  articulate his vision for those willing to listen…made all the difference.    Could he have done more had he been elected?  Probably.  Maybe?  Her message to me was that failure was really irrelevant.  Her dad’s willingness to accept risk made a significant difference for him from that point onward.

Wow.  Failure?  Her story helped me rethink failure as a barrier.  Did I fear failure?  Do you?   After her story I reasoned that if I failed maybe it would allow me to continue on a trajectory more important than the one I’d be on if I never tried.  Too confusing?  Maybe failure is like a switch in a rail yard – it introduces you to a whole new set of tracks….without derailing.

My friend’s story has accompanied me during my transition, or the big “T” as another friend of mine calls my current state.   First it taught me to isolate financial risk from the other risks that I faced; personal risk, career risk, risk to my family….you get the picture.    I’ve found that you can work on these risks in parallel.   One is not gated by the other.  I speak with a lot of women about transition.  One of the most common things that I hear is that folks are stalled due to a perception of risk surrounding their next move.   Have you ever thought of isolating the financial risk from your other concerns?  Did it get you anywhere?

Probably the best gift my friend’s story gave me was its nudge toward neutralizing “failure” as a risk.    Once eliminated all sorts of angles open up.  There are parallels between myself and the woman who headed OAT from her Cambridge home.  We both had the incredible opportunity to live a dream.   Now I find it is time to dream bigger — having suspended failure as a psychic gate.

I’ve come to learn that there is no failure…only failure to act.  Either now or in the near future I hope you join me in this state…

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7 responses to “Risk and Failure

  1. Thank you for another thoughtful article. We as a culture don’t talk about fear of failure enough, especially as a barrier to our own progress! The best comments I have ever heard on the topic came from J.K Rowling in her commencement address for the Harvard class of 2008. Here
    is the link:

    Best regards,
    Katie Mahon

  2. Katie,
    Thanks for your kind words and for the excellent link. For those who don’t have 20 minutes…the failure remarks start about 8 minutes in. Linda

  3. A very helpful post. It made me realize that failure is also about how you frame it. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my transition from full time to part time work is not a failure to pursue a kick ass career. Instead it was an action to succeed at being a supportive parent for my daughter with a learning disability. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Thanks Maria….lucky daughter!

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