Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Aphorisms of Success

I've blogged a bit on corporate culture (and there are far more on the topic waiting to be written or rewritten). One of the aspects I should focus more on is the emphasis and, in some cases, the outright enforcement of aspirational language.

It is easy to satirize the steady stream of phrases like "achieving excellence," "amazing customers." and "maximizing impactfulness." A friend of mine, who was dean of business at a small college at the time, actually created an award called "the margins of excellence" (excellence apparently being a thing you don't want to hit dead on).

But there are bigger concerns than just looking silly. It is true that most of the time if properly applied, the combination of hard work and a reasonably positive attitude will often achieve impressive results, but it's not a deterministic relationship. When you ignore the caveats and the limits and completely commit yourself to the anything-is-possible rhetoric, the results can be disastrous.

I was recently reading some particularly embarrassing example on an education blog, I was reminded of the This American Life segment on Duke Fightmaster.
Duke Fightmaster is not a man of half measures, and he believed in the aphorisms of success, that if he wanted something badly enough, he would have it. He was going to replace Conan O'Brien. Not by doing all the normal things like getting a production job at a local talk show, learning the business, working his way up. Instead, he would make himself into a talk show sensation from his own bedroom.
As you might guess, this did not go well.

Duke Fightmaster
I guess somewhere in my mind I just thought, you know, no matter how bad things get, I'll just kind of put my head down and keep going. And I knew that it was ridiculous, starting a talk show. I mean, I knew that, outwardly, people think I'm ridiculous.

And I remember just driving around like, "The show isn't going anywhere, I'm not going anywhere, I've wasted these last years." And I remember just driving around so depressed. And I just felt like I had broken-- and I had a breakdown where I just started crying in my car. And I just felt like I hit the core of my being and it was, "you're a loser." And I think that was part of my rock bottom.

Sarah Koenig
Did you quit after that?

Duke Fightmaster
No. No, I think I still went for another year after that.

You know, anyone who makes it in this life at anything, you always hear, has to go through hell. So I figured, "I'll just go through hell." I remember my friend who worked in real estate worked for one of those cheesy real estate motivators that used to yell out, "You have to have a break down to have a break through." So I was thinking, "OK, I've had my break down, so now I'm going to actually break through to some new level."
You really should listen to the whole thing

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