Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

Why "Am I a Success or a Failure?" Is The Wrong Question

Wisdom from Karl Weick

I've written about The University of Michigan's Karl Weick many times (for example, see here) as he is one of the most creative and thoughtful people I've ever met.  He, more so than anyone know, looks at the same things as everyone else, but sees something different. Consider these sentences that he wrote in a paper on renewal: 

Roethlisberger argues that people who are preoccupied with success ask the wrong question. They ask, “what is the secret of success” when they should be asking, “what prevents me from learning here and now?” To be overly preoccupied with the future is to be inattentive toward the present where learning and growth take place. To walk around asking, “am I a success or a failure” is a silly question in the sense that the closest you can come to answer is to say, everyone is both a success and a failure.

As usual, Weick sees things another way, and teaches us something.  One of the implications of this statement is that the most constructive ways to go through life is to keep focusing on what you learn and how you can get better in the future, rather than fretting or gloating over what you've done in the past (and seeing yourself as serving a life sentence as a winner or loser).  Some twists of Weick's simple ideas are explored in Carol Dweck's compelling research in Mindset.

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As an organizational psychologist, I tend to think of how Weick's ideas apply in the workplace, especially to performance issues, as bosses and companies often become so overly focused on short-term success and failure that they undermine learning, make everyone miserable in the process, and undermine their ability to perform well over the long-haul.  Yet, no doubt, Weick's perspective also applies to other parts of life, including how students respond to feedback and how we raise our children -- especially how we react to their setbacks and successes.

P.S. The source for this quote is Weick, Karl E. How Projects Lose Meaning: "The Dynamics of Renewal." in Renewing Research Practice by R. Stablein and P. Frost (Eds.). Stanford, CA.

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See my book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the best... and learn from the worst.

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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