“In the working world, there is a fascination with pathology. Manager are far more articulate about service failure than about service success. This should be rejected. You cannot infer excellence by studying failure and then inverting it.”

The quoted line from this week’s book reminds me of something Peter Thiel said in an interview on the Tim Ferriss show in 2014. When asked about failure, Thiel said you can’t learn much from it. Because the reasons for failure are legion and you may discover one of them, in your particular instance of failure, but you probably won’t discover them all. But success? Success often has some clear signals that you can rely on. Learning from successes means learning how to repeat it.

Failures still occur, of course. But even then, the best advice is to learn from the positive elements, to strive for and acquire the net positive gain. Which is to say that the best lens we use to study our efforts is the one that finds repeatable, successful behaviors.

Oh, but it’s so hard to not obsess over the bad stuff. What might have been. Hence the manager’s fascination with pathology. I think it stems from the fact that managers are specifically tasked with managing. Not leading. Not directing. Managing. There’s a lot already written about the distinction between management and leadership. 

But I think this week’s book really nails the fundamental difference. A leader looks for success. They look to copy it, extend it. A manager looks for failures. To repair them, prevent them. They worry a lot. Something is going to go wrong at some point and they just know it. Where is it? Where is the failure?

I think we need some of that, certainly, but it only carries a little value, not a lot. So the attention around failures should be scaled to the same degree. We have to get better at recognizing our successes instead. Instead of what might have been, let’s look at what could be.

It rhymes with another great insight; this one is from Duke Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzweski. On the court, no matter what happened, they move on. Next play. Missed a shot? Next play. Made a shot? Next play! This means that you don’t react to the individual moment, be it the microfailure or microsuccess. You treat those moments as they are: small. Each one is  inconsequential by itself, part of a pattern and rhythm that is fueled by a lot of external dynamics no one controls and interpreted by the one internal dynamic that is entirely your own: attitude.

Bad managers can’t look ahead to the next play. They don’t see the work as anything other than the failures that just happened, the violations against policies and compliance. Next play? No, let’s bring up the past thirteen plays instead. Here’s the tape of what you did wrong. Because you didn’t listen to me. Listen to me next time and this won’t happen.

We should be past this by now. Our cars have small rearview mirrors. That’s no accident. You can and should look back—for safety’s sake—but don’t stare.  

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash