“The opposite of ‘success’ is not ‘failure’, but ‘mediocrity'”

I am very grateful to one of my international students for sharing this wonderful quote from a New Zealand business woman. It was during a class a fortnight ago and we were discussing entrepreneurship and why only 1% of European business school graduates create their own company immediately upon graduating. One of the reasons, said some of the class members, was the obsession with competitive exams and rankings and thus the overall fear of failing. The quote makes you reassess what exactly “success” and “failure” really are.

Americans tend to deal better than other nations when it comes to such “failure”. The old saying goes than you cannot succeed in the country until you have been bankrupt at least 3 times. This is perhaps one of the reasons that they have so much confidence in starting businesses. In this context, it is practically impossible to fail so you can try almost anything. It also encourages them to throw themselves into work with a passion and emotion rarely seen in other countries. American business literature carries an almost religious fervour, (sorry “fervor”!) to it.

Howard Schultz and Starbucks

If you have ever been lucky enough to listen to Howard Schultz, you will become aware of the total emotion he feels when he talks about the ups and downs of the company he created, Starbucks. The pain he felt during the turbulent times in the company is more than evident. His voice will actually choke up as he answers questions.

This alignment of passion and pain can occur in fact, in many walks of life.

One girl’s passion for swimming

I remember watching an interview with the British swimmer, Rebecca Aldington, a week after her 800m Olympic Final in Beijing. She described the stomach cramps that she began to get just after the second turn during the race (bear in mind that she now had a further 14 lengths of the pool to complete).  The interviewer asked her how a swimmer managed to overcome this pain.

I was particularly interested in the question as I had experienced a similar problem while out running two days before. This was not Olympic training, you understand, rather more a guilt inspired jog after rather too many meals and good wine with friends in the past weeks. After about 50 minutes I too had experienced stomach pains (paltry no doubt to what Aldington had been going through). In the end, I had given in to them and walked the last kilometer home. Now I was about to find out how a world class professional swimmer with the scientific might of personal coaches and trainers dealt with the problem. What was her secret? What technique did she use?

The nineteen year old thought for a second and then, in her wonderful, down to earth, no nonsense Northern English accent said:

“Well, you don t really get over the pain, you just put up with it.”

Rebecca Aldington won the gold medal in that race. Just for good measure, she broke the longest standing world record which had been set when she was only 6 months old. For most of the swim she had been severing with severe pain.

Passion always involves pain

This is an amazing lesson from someone barely old enough to vote. Here was a girl living for her passion and no amount of hurt or discomfort would stop her from pursuing her dream to be Olympic Champion. The pain she felt was not an unhappy event, rather part of the experience itself. The pain was an intrinsic part of living out her passion.

Passion and analysis in business schools

Students tend to be aware of the dedication needed to succeed in their future careers. After all, they are sitting in the classroom BECAUSE they know how to work hard and quickly. They are generally less in tune with the fact that that passion may require a lot of sacrifice and some pain as well. The danger of current teaching in business schools is that we have become so obsessed with rational, analytical models that we have forgotten to tell this to the students. It is not all about data mining, emails and graphs on powerpoint presentations.

Joe Plumeri, CEO of the investment bank, Willis Inc., gives an excellent lesson on the need for a vision within a company to motivate people. This vision must be based on integrity and passion for the general mission. It is not all about research and numbers.

“You can’t Google a heart!”   he screams at anyone prepared to listen. His eyes visibly fill up as he says it.

Students, like those business leaders they crave to emulate, should try to be encouraged to pursue whatever brings them passion in their careers. If they do, they will have to endure a certain amount of discomfort, but this is part of the experience. The hardest part of the story is that embracing such passion and pain is no guarantees to success. The business world is not always tender and unlike Hollywood, it doesn’t always give us a happy ending. Surely though it is better to know that you have tried. After all, in the eyes of the New Zealand businesswoman, the real failure is giving in, abandoning your passion and choosing not to know if you could have succeeded or not. How many of us want to describe our life as being “mediocre”?

See also:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing

Crazy Train to TT: “I have to admit to having a love/hate relationship with writing; there are days when I would absolutely do anything rather than put pen to paper. These are the times when I can so easily become distracted by a zillion things.”

Joe Plumeri  Willis Inc CEO  France   Study Abroad  French Business School  Grenoble EM  International Affairs   Higher Education   ESC Grenoble   Strategy  Blog  Global Ed   Graduate Business School    Mark Thomas


Filed under Business, Business Schools, Careers, Entrepreneurship, Great Britain, Higher Education, Leadership, Management, Rankings, USA

7 responses to ““The opposite of ‘success’ is not ‘failure’, but ‘mediocrity'”

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    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you for your kind remarks and my apologies for taking so long to get back to you but I have been extremely busy over the past few weeks. Yes, I do invite guest blogs and would be delighted if you were thinking about writing one on the subjects I cover in GlobalEd. Feel free to get in touch if you need some more information or guidelines. Best wishes, Mark

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