Life Hacks: How to work through failure
Covid-19 has given us an undeniable glimpse of the future. We must assume we will all fail at some point, and plan accordingly.
Almost everyone I know has a despondent narrative to share — about pay cuts, furloughs, their jobs being on the line. This isn’t what life looked just 90-odd days ago. As the ground below our feet continues to quake, how do we plan for the future?
I was first compelled to engage with this question seven years ago, when a series of unsavoury events conspired against me professionally. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that heartbreak followed. Some good counsel later, I got down to reading Managing Oneself, a seminal essay by Peter Drucker, the legendary management teacher, consultant and author.
One of the many pieces of advice he has to offer deals with how to think about a plan to move ahead.
“A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific. So, the question in most cases should be: Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half?
“The answer must balance several things. First, the results should be hard to achieve… Second, the results should be meaningful. They should make a difference. Finally, results should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable. From this will come a course of action: what to do, where and how to start, and what goals and deadlines to set.”
When I think about it now, with things changing every day, 18 months seems too large a window. I’d perhaps review all that I’m at work on every three months.
When you look at things this way, a lot of the stories of people currently staring at a crisis, a lot of the answers to how they plan to deal with that crisis, can feel like they fall short of ideal. Variants include opening a boutique online consultancy or a high-end coaching academy after moving out of Delhi / Mumbai / Bengaluru and into a quieter town.
Asked how they intend to execute these dreams and eventually scale up sufficiently, feeble answers emerge. Whatever happened? Did the pandemic kill imagination and annihilate ambition? Has it and its fallout instilled such fear that we have become afraid to make any real moves?
It shouldn’t. Because if we’re being honest, this crisis was a long time coming. Unlike our parents, who were happy to retire after 40-plus years usually in the same job, most of us “knowledge workers” could hear the clock ticking in half that time. One of two things had to happen.
a. We would become bored but not know we were bored, and imagine we were going through a midlife crisis.
b. The industry we were working in would undergo a transformation, and we wouldn’t. Most of us would then be rendered either redundant or on the verge of redundancy.
Yet, few of us invested in ourselves, acquired a new skill. What competency do most of us have outside the domain we work in?
Most of us knowledge workers have only experienced success. But as Drucker points out, “No one can expect to live very long without experiencing a serious setback… This is clearly an impossibility… Wherever there is success, there has to be failure.”
We live in an age when data exists to predict when we will fail. By way of example, this year, it is estimated that medical knowledge will double every 73 days. That means a doctor will be outdated before they step off campus. To stay relevant, working hard isn’t enough; we must also study harder, and study constantly. This is true across domains. The evidence was right there; one way or another, a quake was coming.
Fresh research has it that a 15-year-old in 2020 must be prepared to work across 17 jobs in five different industries through their lifetime. Are we preparing our kids for that kind of future?
Now, all wisdom has it that failure must be accepted with equanimity. But I refuse to buy into this wisdom. Which brings me to what I believe is the one upside to the pandemic — we have been given an undeniable glimpse into our future.
Rather than accept failure, it is time to shed all narratives about our successes of the past. It took us 10, 15 and 20 years to craft those narratives. It’s time to get to work so we can craft the next 20 years. Our time starts now.
The writer is co-founder at Founding Fuel and co-author of The Aadhaar Effect