The F-Word – Failure: a Life Thereof

Failure tolerance! I’ve heard a lot about that recently. It’s oft repeated that we have to allow ourselves and others to fail in order to succeed. I wanted to illustrate the importance of this by dissecting my own career. Like any dissection, it’ll be a bit gory, as I’ve decided to be open and honest about this. Quite a bit of our time, in this field, seems to be spent bragging about “successes”. It’s all the rage to get a picture in some rag with the caption expressing how wonderful we are. However, it may be interesting to look at reality regarding success and failure and to reflect on it!

I’ll start my story with my career onset. My accomplishments as a child were neither successes nor failures, although, were my parents around, they might disagree. The F-word might have come up quite a bit back then, too!

First Career Phase – Monastic
I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the age of 18 (in 1962), I initiated what was supposed to be a very different kind of career compared to the one that emerged: I entered a monastery. There, I was studying to become both a teacher and a priest. That phase of my career lasted only three years, although it is filled with memories. While there, time seemed to unfold in slow motion, perhaps a property of the contemplative life.

A few years ago, a friend asked me why I left the monastery. To understand this and most of the rest of this story, you need to know that, after the novitiate, which lasted two years, the seminarian took the simple (3-year) vows of poverty (no possessions), chastity (no sex) and obedience (do what you’re told). When my friend asked me why I left, I said that I had three reasons, to which he replied: “Well, what were they?”

I answered: “poverty, chastity and obedience”. This stimulated a bout of laughter. Given that I was supposed to be proceeding to solemn (permanent) vows and, ultimately, over about eight years, to consecration as a priest, this was definitely a failure; the first Big Failure! A whole pathway terminated!

In looking back at this experience, I have reflected on what I got from this failure. First of all, I got a couple of years of experience in college, studying Physics in addition to Latin, Theology and Gregorian Chant. I also developed a fairly intense interior life that has proved of immense value ever since. I did learn a lot about discipline, people, liturgical matters and myself. By the way, of the three reasons I gave for leaving, the most important was the vow of obedience. I admit to not being very good at doing what I’m told! My point is that from this failure I made immense gains. In fact, although it took a few more years, I learned that I am not at all religious and, in fact, am either an agnostic or atheist. That was an immense achievement after a life previously focused on religion. Sorry if that bothers you, but I promised openness and honesty.

Second Career Phase – Student
When I left the monastery in 1965, I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin and continued my studies of Physics. In the remainder of this article, I will not name institutions or people, but some may be able to figure them out, an act of inquiry that I would discourage. The key points will be herein.

My academic studies moved from Physics to Astrophysics and then to Biophysics, mainly driven by the paucity of jobs – there were only one or two available related to Astrophysics, because NASA had begun shutting R+D down as the Moon landing approached. I guess one could argue that not continuing in Physics or Astrophysics was another failure. They’d be right! But what I learned is that I am not a good enough mathematician to really excel in those fields. I had to find something I could be better at.

Another failure during this time was when I was approached by a Nobel Laureate in Physics who suggestedI might study under his tutelage. Frankly, I was doing so poorly at that time that I, stupidly, did not exploit this opportunity. That was a life- changing failure! I have learned since that that person was extremely kind and very good with graduate students. Maybe my math disability could have been overcome. After all, he was an experimentalist, not a theoretician! I’ll never know, but this was one of those forks in the road that I didn’t take advantage of, despite Yogi Berra’s advice.

Did I gain anything from this failure? Well, I learned enough math so that I no longer feared it, an attitude that helped me from then on. I also learned that I loved science, I could challenge hard subjects and I could actually understand things…though I was anything but a genius. Those have also been lifelong benefits! So, from failure, came remarkable realizations. And it was a failure, because I am not a physicist or an astrophysicist. See the point? The journey is as or more important than the destination!

Then the Vietnam War intervened and I skedaddled out of the aggressive United States into peaceful Canada (Yes, a draft dodger and a forgiven indicted felon – by Carter in 1976 – for draft evasion!). A few years later, I was approached by a number of people who claimed that this was an immense failure on my part, because I left the Promised Land. Believe it or not, I was on a TV program (it’s on the web) with Sammy Davis, Jr. He visited Canada apparently to try to grasp why people would leave the Promised Land. He saw that as a tremendous failure on my part. Yet, I have seen coming here as, perhaps, my greatest success. By the way, I explained to Sammy that I was simply a coward in that I did not want to lay down my life for my country in a pointless war. Further, I would not obey orders to charge a machine gun nest!(Obedience, a problem again.) However, he went home definitely seeing me as a failure. The point of this is that it is only what each of us sees as failures, not what others see as failures,which are actual failures.

Third Career Phase – Grad Student Then Researcher
In Canada (it’s 1968 now), I continued my education, studying Medical Biophysics, where I stuck for many years. Here was another failure, as my supervisor decided to prevent me from doing my PhD. But I somehow bridged that divide. I eventually emerged into the area of Health Informatics through a complex pathway dictated mainly by necessity. My graduate and early academic research involved using minicomputer-based technologies to analyze medical X-ray images. In truth, that was a failure too. Given my own limitations and the technologyof the day, I was unable to get very far, other than obtaining a graduate degree for my work and a research fellowship that lasted 9 years. In terms of the advancement of the knowledge base in Medicine, what I did was a failure; I added almost nothing to the reservoir of knowledge. However, I got to publish many articles, some of them in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I also managed to establish a decent reputation. Note that all of this is, to some extent, is built on failures.

The point here, is that even if one cannot achieve outcomes that are of the value to which one aspires, something can be derived or smelted from the effort. I also benefitted from realizing that I had better become a bit more humble or I would bash myself against the judgment of others smarter than I. It became clear that perfection could be the enemy of the good. These were other lifelong benefits.

This phase of my career lasted a total of 15 years, into the 1980s. As part of this work, my graduate students and I designed and implemented a clinical information system that supported clinical care for many years. Unfortunately, the same forces that caused me to violate my vow of obedience eventually came into play. It happened that a fire destroyed our systems and a huge amount of medical equipment. I ended up organizing the recovery from this fire. In the process, though, I managed to cheese off my medical chief. He decided to call in the forces to do a review of our work. The result was that we were ‘obsoleted’ (that’s being kind) and support evaporated for continued funding. What had lasted 15 years was post facto declared a failure and terminated.

There are many lessons from this experience spread over those 15 years, as well as from that last bit. For example, even something that has worked for many years can be deemed a failure, regardless of tens of thousands of medical cases supported by it. Often we see failures in startups and new implementations. This was a bit different, and was really an execution born of an individual’s wrath. So failure can be retroactively concluded, based on judgements like what equipment and software was used, not what was produced. I gained immensely from publishing articles and giving many conference presentations during this time.

We can conclude that one can extract personal value from what others judge is a failure. I also learned a lot about people and whom could be depended on for either good or ill will. Perhaps the greatest event that happened during this time was meeting my wife-to-be, with whom I had the good fortune to spend many decades. So, much success came from this set of failures. A few late judgments did not devalue the experience or deny the gains.

Oh, I should point out that, overlapping with this particular work,I simultaneously maintained a second full-time position in another city. It was four years of 70-hour work weeks! In this latter position, I was effectively a CIO, but at a time when the ‘I’ in the CIO was a lowercase ‘i’, as we did not have the means to do what this other institution wished to do. Also, the ‘C’ was lower case too. I did get a chance to establish another research lab, this time in the area of biofeedback, as well as experimenting with clinical information systems applied to another medical discipline.

Oh dear! I must admit that, unfortunately, bloody obedience raised its ugly head again! It happened that there was an administrator who wanted to control all computerization personally. That administrator tried very hard to get rid of me, but the university intervened, as I had academic appointments as well. This particular phase ended peacefully because I pointed out to the invasive administrator that I was planning to leave and, if he left me alone for a year, he could have the field to himself. Despite his other apparent cognitive limitations, this argument won the day. But, another failure!

Again, despite the failure, I benefited enormously from new experiences and collaborators.

It may be worth pointing out that others gained from these failures. At no time did I have fewer than aboutthree employees. Also, I usually had several graduate students who worked on various aspects of the projects. So, others had years of financial benefit in addition to the fact that I, myself, was employed. I got to write many articles, speak at many conferences and even write four books.

There is a kind of pattern here. If failure is not instantaneous, then one and sometimes others can benefit. Also during this time, my wife and I managed to raise three kids. The people side of this is crucially important. The work we did affected both the current and future lives of quite a few people: employees, graduate students and children. So others can benefit even from what looks like it was a failure… because it ended…but everything ends!

Fourth Career Phase – Consultant
The next step was a real career change. From back at the beginning, I had a very low-intensity advisory practice. Now, however, the opportunity to move more seriously into this domain beckoned. I decided to make believeI was a consultant and establish a company. This went on for about 15 years, gradually growing into something really significant. In fact, it got to the point where a United States- based company decided to buy it. They also wanted me to run their IT practice in Canada. After four years, working for that organization became too much of a frustration for both me and them. Another failure! Interestingly, this failure had a quick fix: a spinoff of the company that had acquired me decided it wanted me to continue what I was doing, but under their leadership. So the transition was painless.

I suppose one can regard the breakdown of the relationship with the original company to be a terrible failure. The lesson from it, though, is that another opportunity has the potential of emerging. Again, what I gained was a vast amount of learning (I eventually taught courses on consulting, for example), and hundreds of interesting experiences with people and their organizations in the U.S. and Canada. I managed to develop a reputation based on group management using tools like Nominal Group Technique. Of course, I also managed to make a fair amount of money, especially given what I received for the purchase of my company. It did come to an end and could be considered a failure, but, in business, this is the kind of progression that’s expected. In business, the journey seems to be the reality. So, I learned a lot about business and about government, for which I did a lot of work. During this time I maintained academic appointments, so my publications production did not suffer too much. I employed up to about five people, including some well-known in our eHealth community. I learned to deal with procurements, human resources management, and how to manage a business. So this was a particularly rewarding failure. My sense is that failure is much harder to detect or suffer from in business! Frankly, that’s a good thing. Those successful in business have often failed their way to that success point! So failure is a crucial step towards achievement.

Fifth Career Phase – Full-Time Professor
As I mentioned, the consulting gig lasted about 15 years. I then managed to transition back to academia. First on a voluntary basis and eventually in a full-time academic appointment as a professor. I agreed, on being hired as a professor, to retire at age 65. I suppose it is lucky that I did.Early on, I can remember walking around and wondering aloud to myself: “Am I actually being paid to do this?” However, that feeling only lasted about a year when I ran into the real nature of academia: people who want for themselves what you’re doing, confreres who must prove they are smarter than you (I was willing to stipulate this!) and leaders who wish to prove they have absolute power. I think you can now predict how this phase went: hark back to the monastic vows! Especially, recall that awful word ‘obedience’. I do not respond well to jealousy, theft, braggadocio or attempts at domination. In fact, some serious efforts were made to eject me from the ivory tower and to interfere with my work. The good news is, and ends up being among the lessons of this phase, that sometimes one can count on people and on the rules. However, part of what I was trying to do was a failure and it did not live long beyond my tenure at the university.

I, yet again, gained enormously from failure. I actually got to set up a wide- ranging organization that engaged at least 100 people and lasted over eight years. I was blessed with a number of excellent graduate students. I got to work with people far brighter than I am and to learn from them. I got to publish and present my work in many different settings. I received a significant amount of external funding and made many friends. In particular, I benefited from the support of several remarkable individuals whom I wish I could name, but cannot do so here. How they helped me was “above and beyond”. How lucky can one be in yet another failure?

So let’s reflect somewhat holistically on this slowly unfolding cataract of failures.

Looking Back: Lessons
When I look back, I can see that the adage “all good things come to an end” has been validated – over and over. The nature of living things is that they have a beginning and an end and a life in between. Life, for a mosquito, may be a day or two. For a dog, it may be a decade and for a cat about two. I think we have to expect that the phases of our lives have similar longevities, say a decade or so. If they go on a bit longer, we must have the equivalent of a longevity gene. But, if they’re a little shorter, that’s normal. I’ve oft advised my mentees only to take a job on a contract and never for more than seven years. I tell them that if their employer wants them to stay after this time, the employer can beg and they can consent – for another limited number of years. But, the limited duration will bestow a natural point for departure if either side is not happy. It can be defined as a success if you’re still around after the point you agreed to go. I don’t think anything can last 15 years anymore, so think about that!

The second big lesson is that “it is the journey, not the destination that’s important”. This is true in the bedroom and the office. One needs to milkeach hour or day of the journey for everything one can gain from it and what one can put into it. It may be one’s pay, or publications, learning, experience, or advancement. But the idea is to, much like one enjoys each day of life, enjoy and gain benefit from each day of work. This is crucial given our mortality…or the limitations on our employability.

The third big point is that success is, in fact, transiting the road or pathway, and failures are the cobblestones. In a very important sense, we must fail in order to succeed overall and throughout life. Failure is not pathology; it is component of productive personal physiology.

The fourth point is that dealing with people and dealing well with them will reduce the negative impacts of failure. Sooner or later you will come up against someone who just doesn’t like you, wants what you have, decides to prove his or her power, is significantly smarter than you are, or perhaps is just plain stupid or mean. I admit that my greatest personal failure was not dealing adequately with people. There are people out there who could have finessed certain situations. I have learned a bit and have become a bit better at it, but the stubbornness that drove me through my career is also what created pain points that could’ve at least been ameliorated. I could have been nicer to the Master of Professed who tried to control me, or the medical chief who decided to get even, or the supervisor who decided to stand in my way, or the person who wanted to steal what I had done or the academic leader who wanted his way. No question about that! But stubbornness…

A friend of mine once said that one’s best feature is also one’s worst feature. This is a new concept of ‘feature dipolarity’. Think about that. It’s quite an insight to realize that, if one’s best feature is being flexible, then that can be manipulated by someone else, making it one’s worst feature. My stubbornness is at once my best and worst feature, is my conclusion. I do claim that my sense of humor is another feature (some would laugh at that). Others might jump at the opportunity to point out other features that are my worst, but I will rest my case on this one. So, if a feature is both the best and the worst, then the only issue is how one expresses that feature. In that is the art of working to the greatest possible mutual benefit with others. I claim that politicians are the ultimate expression of this fact. They are able to shape-shift better than Odo on Deep Space Nine, taking on a different persona according to with whom they are dealing.

In fact, I never wanted to be a politician. But, I sure could have done better! I hope you choose well in this regard, maybe find and take a pathway with fewer stumbles and develop better best and worst features. More than anything, I hope that you become failure tolerant. By the way, just for the record: I do not see myself as a failure, but I would not argue with anyone who does. I have had a great life, a fantastic career and was never bored for even a minute. Wait! There were some moments when listening to purported hotshots droning on and bragging about themselves…

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