I’ve Failed More Than 50% Of The Time
And I’m Trying To Figure Out Why
As the college chapter of my life closes, I’ve been doing a number of self-reflections. The most epiphanic process thus far has been to chart my successes and failures throughout the 4 years of my collegiate career. The goal was to isolate the elements that caused success or failure.
The methodology goes a little something like this:
- Chart out all the extracurriculars I’m involved with, bucketed into years. Extracurriculars are basically activities outside of your classes that you spend your time on. I chose not to list classes because I took the majority of them out of necessity. I also chose not to list other important life activities, such as making friends or finding a community, because they were very subjective (although they are definitely important!).
- For each, put a label on them: SUCCESS, FAILURE, OR SOMEWHAT SUCCESS. How do I determine if a project was a success, somewhat successful, or a failure? I mainly used personal goals as a proxy. If a project fulfilled all personal goals, it was a success; if it topped out at about 80–90% of goals, it was somewhat successful. Anything else was considered a failure. (note: these goals are personal. A project could still fail, but if your own personal goals are met, that would be a success)
- Flesh out my reasons for why I’ve labeled an activity as such.
- Take a step back, and see if there are any commonalities between successes, somewhat successes and failures.
For example, my review on the WashU Hip Hop Union would go a little something like this:
“Year-3 WashU Hip Hop Union (success): became President, had clear vision on what to achieve, built an even better team and took even better people, started building up a strong robust culture, had strong transitioning off, hit key deliverables.”
After plotting the results out on an Excel sheet, what I’ve found were 2 extremely valuable insights:
I found that throughout my collegiate career, I’ve only achieved a success rate of < 50% — aka I’ve failed more than half the time consistently. However, one key reason was because I was doing too much. I could only persistently succeed at 2–3 activities. In fact, as I developed my skills over the 4 years, the number of failed projects did go down, but they were only replaced by “somewhat successful” projects — the cap of “2–3” successes did not budge at all.
I will admit that 4 years is a fairly small sample size, and who knows — maybe as I get even better I can convert the “somewhat successful” projects to full successes — but I’ve talked to mentors and read articles, and they’ve all mentioned that a small number of 2–3 foci in life is probably the most optimal for massive success. When I look back at how I spread myself out during those two years, I am confident that over-committing was a key reasons why I could not achieve tremendous success in many of my pursuits.
More importantly, I found 6 consistent elements that contributed to projects failing (at least for me). If a project missed any one of those elements, it was likely that I wouldn’t be able to achieve 100% success. The elements are:
- Ownership: Do I have responsibility in driving this project forward?
- Passion: Is it something I will regret if I don’t do it now? Does it bite at me if I don’t start?
- Expertise: By founding/joining this project, can I 10x its value?
- Team: Is everyone there a 100% smarter/more driven/nicer/better than me in some way?
- Vision: Do I have a vision for my role, and will it 10x the project?
- Connection: Can I work up to 100 hours a week with these people?
Whenever one or more of these elements were missing, I would not fully engage, and over the course of a year, the project would start floundering.
This exercise was refreshing and quick-easy. I walked out of it with a brand-new criterion sheet (I call it the Six Elements For Impact) to evaluate new opportunities as they come along. I also had to force myself to take a hard look at the the gamut of activities I was involved in, and be brutally honest with how successful they would be, so that I could wean it down to the 2–3 sweet spot.
Obviously, this was a very personal exercise, and I would not encourage anyone to apply it blindly. However, if what I said made sense to you, give it a spin! It might reveal to you some interesting results.
Lastly, if you’re bogged down by number of things you tried to start and fail, don’t worry! Failing early and failing fast is probably the best growth spurt you can give yourself. jordangonen has a great article here that talks all about it: https://medium.com/@jordangonen/the-paradox-of-success-84678b084d0f.