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A blog by Ryan Quinn, Robert Quinn, Shawn Quinn, and Amy Lemley

Staying Positive While Failing Miserably

– By Schon Beechler

Monday I arrived in India in a state of Lift, believing that teaching here for the first time would offer me an opportunity to positively impact a class of Indian managers and personally experience a dramatic learning experience. Today, it’s Friday, and the program is over. As anticipated, I’ve had a rich learning experience.  Other than that, it’s been pretty much of a disaster.

How was it a disaster? Let me count the ways… 1. It was a disaster in terms of teaching evaluations – I got my lowest evaluations ever in executive education – and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. There were a few 4′s and 5′s (out of 5) but most evaluations were 3′s and one person gave me a 1. That was a first. 2. It was a disaster in that I tried to take the feedback that I received yesterday afternoon, solicit additional clarifying feedback and change my session to reflect that – but it didn’t seem to have any impact at all. And, most importantly,  3. It was a disaster because I had the final two and a half days in a high-profile two week course that was going great until I showed up. The other faculty and staff are, understandably, unhappy and upset with this outcome. I don’t think anyone will be sorry to see me leave tonight.

I can’t deny or sugarcoat the outcomes for my employer or the participants in any way.  At the same time, this experience also represents a personal triumph for me. Throughout this crucible experience – even when I received well-meaning but devastating criticism from the program director only 5 minutes before I had to stand up in front of the class and teach again – I was able to stay in a state of Lift.

As I reconvened the class, I was overwhelmed by emotion. My stomach was in my throat and red hot embarrassment blazed across my cheeks. There was a tiny voice in my head blaming the students for being immature and shallow. Another voice was furious at the program director for dumping this on me five minutes before class. And, even more loudly, I heard the voice that said, “you simply can’t do this.” Everything that was happening seemed to be the exact opposite of the result that I was trying to create.

Breathing deeply, I faced the participants, staying purpose-centered and internally-directed and focused on the future and my goal of creating the best possible learning experience possible for my participants in the time that we had left together.  I stayed other-focused and quieted the voices in my head so I could hear those of my students. I struggled to put the common good ahead of the preservation of my self.  And, despite everything that was happening to pull me under, I won the battle against closing down and kept myself externally open.

I shared with them that I had just received their feedback and asked what suggestions they had for change. As I listened to their suggestions, I stayed internally directed. When the changes seemed to be for “edu-tainment” reasons or because “all of the other faculty members have done it this way,” I put them aside and focused on the changes they recommended that I truly believed could enhance their learning. I tried to adapt my session in real time and over-night, re-did my session for this morning.

It’s Friday and the program is over. I’m exhausted. I’m sad and I’m disappointed. This was not the result I wanted to create by coming here. I spent a lot of time and effort preparing for this engagement and, despite everything, I still failed a lot of people .  I failed, but I did it admirably. I didn’t lash out in anger or frustration. I didn’t close down. And I didn’t abandon my purpose that brought me here. I will never brag about what happened this week but in a small quiet way, I am grateful for the experience and know that I have reason to celebrate.

 

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7 Responses to “Staying Positive While Failing Miserably”

  1. admin says:

    Schon – this is the first challenge. You must come back and get a standing ovation in your next program. I have been working with Indian Managers for over 15 years and am willing to offer you all the help you need. You have it all in you, the immense wealth of knowledge. Indian managers need it packaged differently. Hope to meet you next time you are in India. We love you. Please dont be disheartened. Its just a program not India.

  2. Jane Dutton says:

    Schon– I so appreciate the honesty around your experience and the learning I gain by the modeling you are providing. I continue to learn so much from you. Your statement “I failed admirably” is so noteworthy. It is one of many useful insights I take from your posting.Your colleague, Jane

  3. Rachel says:

    Schon,
    Thank you so much for sharing this experience – it is so much easier to blame (others and/or ourselves) and just shut down and I so appreciate that you chose to stay open and present. Interesting that this very spiritual experience happened while you were in India. Having seen you succeed by more conventional measures in countless exec. ed. settings it is quite powerful to hear about this “failure” it is both humbling and encouraging as a less experienced educator. Once you’ve had time to sit with the experience i’d love to hear more about what you might do differently.
    Gratefully,
    Rachel C

  4. Jan Elsner says:

    Schon, What an experience! I read this blog and share in your learning, feel that discomfort in the moment, and then the after-effect of negative emotion that can be a dark cloud full of self-doubt and de-motivation. I personally walked away from an opportunity to work in India a few years ago, although I was really desperate to experience India. I can explain it logically, but fear of failure was my truth. You went in, learned by doing, and as one of my coaching clients puts it, went in there to ‘fail fabulously’! How generous of you to share this, as it truly benefits me. Hopefully in time you can brag about some learning and how it caused some future success ahead for you. Yours, Jan

  5. admin says:

    Schon, I’m sorry to hear about your rough experience and glad that you had a growth opportunity. (It’s always easier for me to appreciate those growth opportunities for others than it is for myself in the moment.)

    I have taught on several occasions in India to students and to executives. I read your blog and was touched by your reflections and also by your openness to changing things on the fly.

    Although my experience in India is not extensive, one thing that I have appreciated (in several senses of that word) is to have someone prepare the group prior to my time with them as to who I was and the themes and topics I would be addressing. On each occasion this person (different person with different groups) did more than just introduce me and talk about my credentials. They went beyond that and talked about my approach and style and how it might differ from the styles to which they were accustomed. It was emphasized that this difference was part of learning, and essential to becoming a more effective global leader.

    My sense was that this type of introduction accomplished several things that would have been difficult more me to do personally: 1) it prepared them, as a sort of inoculation, for a different teaching style; 2) it also implicitly signaled that the program director was aware of the difference in style and thought it was a valuable addition to the program; 3) it encouraged participants to focus on my style AND also their reaction to it, and suggested that accepting and learning to accommodate that style had relevance and value.

    Whether this would have been helpful in your situation is uncertain, but it probably wouldn’t have hurt. It’s something you might explore with program administrators in the future when you are back to India.

  6. Chris says:

    Schon…

    As you already know, you are who you are…and you are a wise and brilliant teacher who has much to give, and who has already given much. As someone I deeply respect once said, “failure is an event, not a person.” So your baseline as a force for much good is just that.

    Your willingness to confront imperfection is a blessing to those you were teaching. Some of them thought well of your presentation–and you can’t now evaluate what benefit you may have given them; don’t forget that end of the bell curve. It will play out in time. Those who didn’t think well of what you offered them reacted on the spot…but the complete experience includes your visible setback, your visible response, and your attitude of poise in adversity. That may be the most valuable teaching point that any of them have gotten in a long time, and they may not grasp it yet.

    So…the net effect seems to me that you 1) prepared, 2) cared, 3) ran into adversity, 4) rose above it honestly, visibly and laudably, and 5) pressed on. That’s a great lesson for any manager and if they don’t get it…well, they just don’t get it. You’re not there to entertain or even to teach per se, you’re there to help them learn. And if one important student learned a memorable lesson…he or she might be the person you were there to benefit. Sounds like learning was accomplished!

    Semper volare!

  7. admin says:

    Chris,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post and your words of wisdom. I find comfort in your words and hope that others, when they face similar circumstances, will too!

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