Jay Dixit

Brainstorm

Mark Penn on Failure

Mark Penn on failure.

Posted May 27, 2009

Mark Penn has helped some of the most powerful people in the world get through some of the most challenging personal crises in history. As a public relations advisor, he helped Bill Clinton survive the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He helped Bill Gates keep Microsoft from being broken apart by the government. He helped Martha Stewart through her insider trading trial. And he helped Tony Blair win reelection when his prospects seemed hopeless. Most recently, he was chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

There are two ways to proceed. You could tell me about the times you personally felt discouraged. Or you could tell me about the advice you gave to the people you were advising.

To wrap it together, the irony is that I feel like the Grim Reaper because I am by necessity called in at the most difficult moments these prominent people are facing. Those times can be extremely tense and difficult, but if you keep your wits about you and continue to plan forward, that moment is never the sum total of everything you've done. It's just one piece of a larger puzzle of what you're trying to accomplish.

Why don't you start by telling me some of the toughest moments you've been through when advising people in tough situations.

The truth is that in today's world, there's no success without failure. If you can't tolerate a failure, it's virtually impossible to have a successful life. The road to success is paved with roadblocks. Difficult moments, things that have gone wrong, attacks you didn't expect. To be successful, you have to be able to overcome and learn from failure. The moment you lose that perspective, you don't climb back from that.

That's easier said than done. How do you remind yourself at the toughest moment that it's an inevitable part of success and that you just need to get through it? How do you keep a long-term view?

You're right to say it's not easy—to really understand what you're about, where you're going. If you look at movies, almost all movies and popular culture are based on the idea of someone who's different standing up. But in reality, being different and standing up and having a counter view is one of the hardest things to do in our society.

I try to remember that it's not about what everybody else thinks at that moment. It's really about "Are you going to have the kind of strength and fortitude to carry through with what you believe in, even against the odds?" That's what's made me a tough competitor and a fighter that people relied upon through their difficult situations. When you find yourself in difficult situations, are you the shoemaker without shoes? You have to be able to find some of that personal fortitude.

Are you thinking of any movies in particular?

I grew up on movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Inherit the Wind that were always about standing up for what you believe regardless of the pressure. Today you can go to even kids' movies and they are always about the bee, the penguin, or the cub who grows up by standing up.

My most successful strategies—like "soccer moms" in '96 for President Clinton or the Upstate Strategy for Hillary in 2000—were always opposed by just about everyone, and I can tell you that fighting for things outside the zone of conventional wisdom will always take a lot of flak, and a lot of energy to sustain.

They say that was truly the secret to Bill Clinton's success. "The comeback kid." Every time he was knocked down, he would just bounce up again like one of those punching dolls.

That's not true. It doesn't work that way. It's a day-by-day process back. Bill Clinton and the others have realized, it's not going to bounce back tomorrow, but it will bounce back a year from now if you're steady about it.

When you say "it" I guess you mean popular opinion and politics. But what about him personally, his optimism and determination? Some people get discouraged and stop trying. Others somehow muster more strength than they had before.

I don't want to single out clients. The people I've worked with in those areas do get frazzled, they do get tense. But that doesn't stop them from saying, "I'm going to overcome this. We're going to fight back. It's going to take us a while. We're going to start today." The other thing that's very important is to have a kind of longer-term view that lets them see where they're going. If you go back and look at his reelection that I worked on, it took about a year to turn around where he was. So you need to hold that vision not just for a day or a week or an hour or just a moment. You need to hold the vision that you can turn whatever adversity you're under around if you keep at it for a very long period of time. Those are the people who become successful. There's no seven-day diet for problems. It's often a year, a year and a half.

Do you think it's something innate about personality, or do you think there's something ordinary people can do to learn that resilience?

My own most difficult moment was when my father passed away when I was 10. For me, that was enormous adversity. My family didn't have any real source of income after that. My whole world changed. He was sick for a very long time so it was emotionally wrenching. And yet, I learned from that having to take greater responsibility for myself at an early age. That experience really then suited me later on to help me be an advisor and to deal with situations that would come up later in my own life. None of them would really be as devastating as that for me—so far.

It's funny you said that, because we do talk about this concept that if you have some kind of really horrible event happen to you in your first 25, 30 years of your life, you're young enough that you have to work through it, and you realize you're stronger than you thought. But people who seem to have charmed lives for their first 30 years become brittle. Eventually all of us have something horrible happen. For those people who didn't have it in their early years, they're brittle and it can break them.

Plus I had a mother who was fundamentally an optimistic personality. She always believed that tomorrow would be better. I could see the terrible adversity that she had to go through, and how she came through it as an even stronger personality. That role model was extremely important. She had to go back to work, started as a substitute teacher in difficult areas, then in the evenings I would grade all the papers for her. So those memories I had of her being a role model were critically important.

Would you say you have that optimistic personality, that keeps the long view and knows that if you work through it, things will be better?

Yes. The people who know me say exactly that. I take on a lot of difficult situations. People say, "He's the guy with rose-colored glasses." Not everything works out the way you intend it. But very few things work out unless you can see the vision of where you want to go, how you get there, how you overcome the necessary adversity in front of it. That's what I've learned over time.

Is that personality something you got because your mother was also very optimistic and passed it down? Or because you had that tough event early in your life?

If you asked me to do my own psychoanalysis, for which I'm totally unqualified, those early events and my optimistic mother showed me there's a way out of even the most difficult moments of life—in a way that would enable me to be strong for people who went through those moments themselves and enabled me to face difficult moments myself. I always tell people that whatever moments we have in the past, the candidate wins or loses. Again, health care issues can blow away anything else that happens to anybody. There are, I think, the most difficult things to deal with, and we underrate them.

When were you able to apply those lessons? What were some other tough moments when you had to be strong for yourself or for other people?

Fortunately, much of my life was quite positive. Obviously recently, going through political campaigns has become extremely tough, and so I think what you find out is you wind up pretty quickly in the crossfire. I hoped tremendously that Hillary would win, and it was very difficult moments throughout the campaign. It's easy to telescope the campaign that didn't win without having to constantly remind people, "Well, OK, we won in '96, we won with Blair, we won in so many races with her in New York." To put in context here, what 30 years of your life has been, so you can say, "Well, we're going to move on to the next big challenge or the next win." I had to go through that here and go through that in the past. Although I emphasize that the personal challenges that people don't see can be far more difficult than the public challenges that both I see candidates go through and that I think all of us in politics wind up going through.

Can you tell me a war story from the campaign?

The day before New Hampshire was the hardest day—the polls showed we were going to lose, the press said we were going to lose and they said the campaign was over, and people were already trying to point fingers. I went back to my room and wrote a memo on what to do next—if we lost or if we won—and had it ready for the next morning. You have to take those hard moments and figure out what to do next rather than get stuck or paralyzed. You have to channel all the energy, anxiety, and frustration into something positive and forward-thinking and that is always the best way to deal with adversity. You have to have a picture of the way out.

When you say there's a way out of even the toughest moments, do you mean there's a solution, something that, if you think about it, you'll figure it out? Or do you mean that time will heal and you'll feel better?

Both, actually. Time does a lot for most wounds, but a lot of crisis work is solving problems and trying to come up with a solution. I wrote the 3 A.M. ad because it looked to me like Texas was going to be lost. The kind of intensity of that kind of situation can produce more creativity. A lot of people joke that I don't even get going until the last five minutes of a crisis. You have to work very hard at trying to solve really difficult problems. If you can keep trained to the idea that for almost everything there is a solution, that's the kind of attitude you've got to have in crises.

When you feel personally discouraged, do you try to pump yourself up? Or do you accept, "It's OK for me to feel hopeless for awhile, and it's normal for me to feel discouraged," and just ride it out?

More the second. Many times, in a discouraging moment, it's that discouragement that may drive you to find the solution or the next thing to do. You have to feel it, you can't let it go by without feeling it. So the answer is not to try to pretend it wasn't a difficult moment. The answer lies in feeling that, having it keep you going.

What's the trick to that? How do you find that feeling?

That's where I think it's just an innate reaction. Some people know how to hit a baseball, other people have a different kind of reaction under crisis. Again, I feel that having had my difficult experiences when I was 10, it made me sensitive to what my clients were going through in some of their difficult moments. It was hard for other people to relate to what I think a lot of the clients personally go through. The public will only see the public side, but they have private and personal reactions to everything that goes on as well.

Any other lessons you've learned along the way?

If I were going to summarize it, it's keep your wits about you. Understand that you're never going to be successful unless you go through some defeats or failures and are able to overcome them. Work like the dickens to overcome them and recognize that it's a normal part of every single life. There's no such thing as a life without adversity and no success without it.