An Interesting Twist On Success Breeding Failure

I make it a habit of listening to successful people. I read their books, and follow their articles, and research some of the same topics of interest they have. I wish I had known this secret when I first started in business 30 years ago. Lou Gerstner is known as the man who turned IBM around. He stepped in as CEO in 1993. The company was bleeding to death internally and literally had 100 days left before it would run out of money. Saving one of the biggest companies that ever existed must have been an extremely difficult under-taking for Gerstner and reading his story is definitely a must.

I found myself inquisitive about something he said during a CNN interview in 2004. He said “The more successful enterprises are the more they try to replicate, duplicate, codify what makes us great. And suddenly they’re inward thinking. They’re thinking how can we continue to do what we’ve done in the past without understanding that what made them successful is to take risks, to change and to adapt and to be responsive. And so in a sense success breeds its own failure.”

There is a lesson here we do well to observe. We as humans should be learning all the time. Yet at some point we turn off or shut down the learning machine inside us. It usually happens shortly after we leave secondary school and/or college. Many of us become over confident and question the need to know and we tell ourselves that enough is enough and we stop educating ourselves. The years of complacency set in and no-one can tell us anything unless they get our attention in a big way like dropping a boulder on our heads or something.


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Just like IBM, we become set in our ways and we get lazy and before you know it the world has changed but we did not change with it. We find ourselves hopelessly lost in premises of the past, and why not; didn’t they do us well then? Didn’t we succeed with all we knew then? Why should we mess with a good thing? All of a sudden quotes come out of the wood-work like, “Don’t fix what’s not broken”, and “Leave well enough alone.”

But just as Gerstner observed about the big blue elephant, you must never let complacency set in. Never become complacent about change. Change is necessary if we are to survive. Gerstner paid credit to a quote he heard by Andy Grove: “It’s only the paranoid that survive…you can never be comfortable with your success, you’ve got to be paranoid you’re going to lose it.”

This is true with our own self-development. We should stay alert at all times and look for ways we need to change. I used to tell my students that they need to develop a state of (PC), permanent cognizance. That means we should develop almost as a sixth sense the ability to always be aware of our surroundings.

There are a multitude of examples of how this could be applied:

• On a job interview, be aware of the office surroundings and use the particulars in your favor.
• On an interview, be aware of the interviewer’s style of asking questions.
• On an interview, be aware of the interviewer’s business jargon.
• On an interview, be aware of the companies’ needs so you can create needs/benefits statements.
• With your spouse, be aware of what triggers his/her emotions.
• With your spouse, be aware of what pleases them and what doesn’t.
• With your children, be aware of the friends they keep.
• With your children, be aware of the homework they bring home.

The list goes on and on. Mostly we should be aware of our own self development and we should be working on something to improve on regularly. Always be concerned about having an “edge” and keeping it. An edge means how you can be of benefit to someone or something else. In our insecure times, you never know when you are going to need to be good at interviewing again.

You might need it sooner than you thought. You should always be selling yourself to your employer anyway. Keeping an edge means you are constantly modifying yourself by taking educational courses that the company or department may need you to take. Think, “What are your co-workers doing with their free time?”


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Things change constantly and we must be ready to change with them. Never become complacent at home or at work. Sharpening the edge may just be the kind of empowering you need today. Stephen Covey would say, “Sharpen the saw”. Today make every minute count and become self-empowered by sharpening your saw. You’ll never know when it will come in handy!

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