What Can You Learn from Failure?

Recently ranked by Thinkers50 as one of the top 8 coaches in the world, my wonderful friend Michael Bungay Stanier is a member of our 100 Coaches and senior partner of Box of Crayons. Michael has written two books The Coaching Habit and Do More Great Work, which have sold close to 600,000 copies.

In this interview, Michael asks me about success and failure especially as it relates to the many books I’ve published over the last few decades. Below is an excerpt from our interview.
Michael: I am here with Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, one of my heroes. Somebody I’ve been lucky enough to be coached, mentored, and encouraged by. The author of many books including 3 New York Times bestsellers, I want to ask you about that.

At the time we met, 20 years ago, you said to me, “Hey Michael, here’s something you need to know. I’ve sold millions of copies of my books, but the truth is I’ve written 20 books.” So, two or three of those have been almost entirely responsible for the millions of books you’ve sold. That means three are gangbusters successes and at the time, 17, not so much.

Marshall: Yes, purchased by my mother, my father, and relatives!
Michael: So I’m curious to know how you hold success and failure. How do you see them, what do you learn from them? Why do you keep writing books? Why do you keep throwing stuff out into the world?

Marshall: I think the important point is to keep trying. The reality is you don’t know always how things are going to work out. I know what I think is good in my mind. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to resonate with the rest of the world. I think it’s very healthy to keep trying and not to coast.

I see many people who are successful and make a lot of money and they kind of let it go to their head. They think they know the answer. Well, the answer gets old after 20 years! You have to go back and keep reminding yourself to start over.

I’m writing a new book now called The Earned Life, speaking of new books. And in it I talk about the importance of everyday reinventing yourself and your legacy. If you don’t, you’re just becoming used-to-be. Didn’t you used to be the guy that wrote those books? Didn’t you used to have a good book and didn’t you used to have good ideas?
If you don’t, you become the “used-to-be”. I think it’s very important as we journey through life to constantly challenge ourselves with new and different ways of thinking. Not every idea is going to “win”, and that’s okay.

Michael: So, how do you manage what you could label as failure? You write a book, you put it out in the world. It doesn’t sell very many copies. It doesn’t get much attention. Some people go, “Marshall, why did you write this?” How do you manage that? How does it not dent your self-esteem?

Marshall: Usually by the time the book is published, I’m already well onto the next one. I’ve already moved on.

Michael: So, part of it is keeping moving?

Marshall: Yes, keep moving. The other thing is, people have a right to their opinions. And you know, I’m not a religious but a philosophical Buddhist, and Buddha said, “Only do what I teach what works for you.” Well, I may have an idea that works for a few people, but it doesn’t work for a lot of people.

It doesn’t mean it’s an inherently good or bad idea; it just didn’t work for people. Sometimes you write a book, it works for people. It doesn’t work for other people. Most of them don’t work.

Michael: It reminds me of a metaphor Jim Collins uses, and it’s not a bad life philosophy about firing bullets and cannon balls. You start off by firing bullets, because they’re relatively cheaper experiments to figure out where the real target is. And then when you find what the real target is, you commit to the cannon ball. Collins basically said, “Look, most people don’t fire enough bullets, because they don’t want to use them all up. They don’t want to fail or miss the target. Or they take their one cannon ball and they fire it too early.
What you’re saying is that you fire bullets. Sometimes they hit and sometimes they don’t And whether they do or not, it’s not about you, it’s about the project, and you don’t take it personally.

Marshall: That’s right. All I can do is my best and share what I think is good for people. I’m human just like anybody else. Sometimes I come up with ideas that don’t work for some. Sometimes they are just dumb ideas. Well, that’s okay. That’s okay. All great entrepreneurs fail.

Michael: I love that. Thank you Marshall!