As I look back on a long and fairly successful career, it’s become clear to me that the disasters, screwups, flops, and efforts that fell decisively short of the goal are the ones that I learned the most from. I started smart, but the flops were where I learned what mattered. On Thanksgiving, I’d like to pay tribute to the people who patiently taught me in those moments of despair.
Here’s some background. I was a prodigy, effortlessly sailing through high school and college with talents in both math and writing. As I entered the PhD program in math at MIT, it was abundantly obvious to me that not only was I a uniquely talented person, but it was going to be smooth sailing from that point forward.
Thank God it wasn’t, because I was one arrogant young man.
So, to start, I’d like to thank the mathematics department at MIT, which taught me that the goal I’d had in mind all along, to be a mathematician, was not right for me. All PhD students suffer setbacks. I gave up, because graduate school was turning out to be not much fun at all . . . but also because the summer job I’d taken as a tech writer at a software company called Software Arts started to look pretty interesting.
I have to thank Ben Bova, my former father-in-law (more about that later), for making the connection that led to that job. I’m sure he was pleased to see that his daughter’s paramour could do something other than brag and beaver away fruitlessly in gradual school.
The person who hired me was Dena Brody. And I have to thank her, too. Because while I could do the work that was asked of me, I was clueless about what it meant to actually work in an office. I recall her asking me to write a business letter to somebody, and then reviewing my work and explaining that, no, that is not how we do it in the business world. Looking back, it’s hard to believe she had the patience to put up with my incompetence. But after failing at a few more things, I got the hang of it. Thanks, Dena.
The talented writers at Software Arts ignored my arrogance as they taught me that everything I knew about writing was flawed and wrong. People like Dena and Jon Waldron showed me the things we all do wrong with jargon and passive voice. Many years later, those lessons turned into this blog and my book
Looking back from the perspective of many decades, I can finally allow myself to thank my first wife. Her toughness showed me how to be ambitious, and her heartlessness showed me what I didn’t want in a life’s companion. It was not a nice breakup, and it left me with almost nothing. But if that had not happened, I would not have realized how important my friends were, and what really mattered. I would not have met the woman I’ve been married to for 27 years, a woman who has taught me about what it means to actually live life rather than trying to triumph over it. There were a lot of hard lessons in that relationship as well, and every one made me smarter.
Twenty-five years ago, my employer at the time, an educational textbook startup called Course Technology, laid me off. I had no job, was laid up with debilitating back pain, and was struggling through the personal hell of trying to figure out why my wife and I were unable to have children. I had tried to get a startup company off the ground and failed at that, too. And at that moment, the research brain trust at Forrester Research decided to take a chance on me.
I started as their CD-ROM analyst and clung to that long past the point where anyone cared. That was a mistake. They redirected me.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do when advising clients. That was a mistake. They taught me.
The first drafts of my reports came back covered with red ink. Failures. Those failures taught me a lot about writing and analytical thinking.
Eventually, Forrester decided they liked a consumer segmentation I had worked on, Techhnographics, and started a survey business around it. I worked on our first consumer survey. We got back lots of great data. We also asked some dumb questions and got back some useless data. Those dumb questions were a very expensive way to fail, but I know a lot more about surveys now.
I became a well-known analyst of the television industry. I made some ambitious predictions — that interactive TV would make billions, and that HDTV would fail. Humiliatingly wrong.
Every one of those experiences made me smarter. A lot smarter.
I have to thank the brilliant men I worked with — George Colony, Bill Bluestein, Ted Schadler, John McCarthy, Harley Manning, Dwight Griesman, Jimmy Guterman, Jon Symons, and so many others — who helped me to see what I was doing wrong and how to do it better. And that’s just the men.
And I have to give an extra measure of thanks to the brilliant women I worked with — Mary Modahl, Emily Nagle Green, Charlene Li, Maribel Lopez, Kerry Bodine, Lisa Walker, and Karyl Levinson, to name a few. They taught me just as much about analytical thinking as the men. But they taught me something else, too. They taught me to see the offensive flaws in how I was behaving as a man in the workplace. This was a hard lesson to learn, because it meant, once again, understanding how I had failed. But it was one of the most important things I’ve learned in the working world.
Finally, my children, now grown, have shown me the limits of my tiny world view and the value of their own souls, so different from my own. Parenting is a series of failures. You do the best you can because giving up is not an option. There is no better way to learn a new perspective on the world than being a parent.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve failed miserably and had one of these folks pick me up and teach me what I did wrong, I’d be rich. And I am rich. Everything I do and everything I am I owe to these people.
It has taken a long time, but the sum of all these failures and lessons has finally given me a taste of something I never had in my long career — humility. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a better way to live.
Next time you fail, screw up, fall short, or flop, look around. Who’s picking you up and teaching you something in that moment? What you tend to feel at those times is resentment and self-pity, but what you should feel is gratitude. Thanksgiving is a good time to remember that.