The Secret Weapon To Achieving Your Goals

March 26 , 2019 •  6 minute read • by Saeed

“Work is love made visible.”

-Kahil Gibran

Contrary to the common belief, goal setting was not invented by self-help gurus and life coaches.

There is actually an impressive body of evidence behind the theory of goal setting dating back to the early 70’s. This research shows how focus, attention, persistence, feedback, incentives, rewards, self-efficacy and a host of other factors influence our degree of success or failure in achieving goals.

In over 25 years of working with real people, I’ve fine tuned what an effective goal-setting process looks like and I’ve come to the conclusion that while goals can be SMART, aligned with your values, big, audacious and hairy, there is one factor that people commonly skip, that tends to make the biggest difference in whether or not those goals are reached.

Research shows that when we make a goal visible and keep it in front of us, our chances for achieving that goal increase dramatically.

In 1979, interviewers asked students enrolled in a Harvard MBA program, how many of them set goals. They found 84% of them set no goals at all, 13% of them set goals but they weren’t committed on paper and only 3% of them set goals that were committed on paper and had planned to accomplish them.

In 1989, they interviewed the same individuals again, they found that 13% of those who set goals but weren’t committed on paper were making twice as much as the 84% who had never set goal.

The 3% who set goals and committed on paper and had the plan to accomplish them were making more money than the 97% put together.

Goal visibility is about motivation, commitment, progress and accountability. It is at this intersection that success in achieving your goals is had. As a social species and one that gives primacy to sight, people have envisioned their dreams and desires from the dawn of time. It’s only natural that we still do. We care about what others think and see. In today’s workplace, shared goals are a powerful way to keep team members on the same page and to drive engagement.

How to make your goals visible:

1.      Talk about it: telling others about your goals creates an immediate accountability mechanism. The larger the audience, the larger the accountability. It’s easier to slip out of accountability if you tell one friend or colleague vs. your whole team or company.

2.      Doodle about it: draw, paint, clip pictures out of a newspaper and create something compelling and meaningful that can represent your goal and how you see it. Having a visual representation of what you are trying to achieve and where you are trying to go is a powerful reminder of the rewards waiting for you. Human beings are not terribly good at being patient for what’s in the distant future. A visual representation of the future you want to create would go a long way towards keeping that desired state in your line of sight.

3.      Write about it: studies have consistently shown that writing down goals increases the odds of completion. When you write down goals, they immediately become real and in writing them down, you can see whether they lack specificity or are overly ambitious. The act of documenting the goals helps get you clear on them.

4.      Post about it: finally, sharing your goals with others provides the opportunity for feedback and accountability. Friends and colleagues will begin to take an interest in your goals and check in on progress. Sharing your goals will also encourage others to share their creating the opportunity for mutual accountability partners. But you also have to avoid making goals *too* visible. Derek Sivers discusses public goals in his TED Talk, sharing how a public announcement of goals gives you a similar satisfaction to actually completing them — and then, you don’t bother.

A final word…

Lastly, be sure you review your goals on a regular basis and don’t be afraid to discard those that are outdated or no longer relevant.  If a goal is no longer meeting its purpose, don’t be afraid to yank it. Sometimes you need to eliminate less important goals in order to meet the ones that matter. The law of diminishing returns would dictate that the fewer goals you have, the more likely you are to meet them with excellence and depth.

It goes without saying that goals have to be meaningful. Otherwise, goal setting can lead to pressure, frustration and a feeling of failure. Stay determined and positive. With the right mindset and mechanisms in place, you can achieve anything you want. Above all, make it visible.

Good luck.

Wait! Before you go…

I really appreciate your readership. If you found this article valuable, please like, comment, and share it with your network so that it can benefit others. 

I also invite you to FOLLOW ME on LinkedIn or subscribe to my BLOG to receive exclusive content not found here.

©2019 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A., CPCC

What is True Leadership? (hint: it is NOT management)

April 26, 2018 • 3 minute read • by Saeed

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

~John C. Maxwell

Leadership is influence.

Leadership comes from our heart and our head. It’s our attitude, and attitude is everything.

Leadership is also the ability to focus a team’s attention and the ability to inspire a team towards a grander vision – a purpose that is bigger than ourselves.

In 1961, JFK visited the NASA Space Center. The United States was in the space race with Russia, a crucial period in geopolitical history. The Russians were ahead of us, and we felt threatened as a culture and a society. Kennedy wanted us to be the first to put a man on the moon. He offered a challenge and a penultimate goal to the dedicated people in the field:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon returning him safely to the earth.”

– John F. Kennedy

Notwithstanding the risk to his own reputation, which was at stake on the world stage, his vision shook NASA to its foundations. In part because, the spacecraft they would use had only a tiny fraction of the computing power of the smarphone that is in your pocket right now.

But at the same time accountability, engagement, motivation, and morale within NASA soared. Most leaders find this surprising. We tend to think that morale is impacted negatively when accountability and pressure are at their highest. The reality is the opposite: providing teams with an inspirational stretch goal, narrowing their focus and harnessing their attention increases both accountability and the engagement of the team.  This is what James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 blockbuster book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies meant by Big Audacious Hairy Goal (BHAG).

As evidence, consider that during his tour of the NASA space center Kennedy stopped to speak with a janitor. He asked, “What do you do?” The janitor responded, “I am helping to put a man on the moon.”

How are you influencing others?

If that influence is coming from your heart and your head, it will have a positive impact on others. That is true leadership!

Good luck.

Wait! Before you go…

I really appreciate your readership. If you found this article valuable, please like, comment, and share it with your network so that it can benefit others.  I also invite you to FOLLOW ME on LinkedIn or subscribe to my BLOG to receive exclusive content not found here.

Why would you follow me?

The most compelling reason I can think of is this: I believe what I write and I write what I believe. I see myself as an alchemist of ideas writing at the intersection of personal, professional, and organizational development to help readers be the most effective human being they can be in order to create lasting impact in the world. If we dig together, we’ll find the gold.

©2018 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

*Photograph of President Obama and White House custodian Lawrence Libscomb by White House photographer Pete Souza

The Devil is In the Implementation: 5 Reasons Why You Fail to Execute on Your Ideas

February 15, 2018 • 6 minute read • by Saeed

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” —Sun Tsu, Ancient Chinese Military strategist

I know. You don’t have to tell me. You’re inspired. You just got a great idea for a new business or product. Or maybe you just had a great meeting or strategic planning session and you can’t wait to implement the new ideas and strategies that emerged. Or maybe you just made your resolution for the New Year.

Whatever the case, there is a spike in your enthusiasm and excitement in the beginning. You are excited to get to the action, to see the results, to impact change, and to make improvements. But before long, you start to lose momentum to execute on your Big Audacious Hairy Goals. You fail to follow through. Your great ideas begin to melt and run down your arm like a scoop of ice cream in the middle of July.

In all the examples above the problem is not the idea, the plan, the goal or the strategy. The problem is the people and their behaviors that either drive or impede progress on the idea. The problem is how you execute.

Steve Wozniack likes to tell the story of how Steve Jobs only learned to execute after he was fired from Apple and started NeXT. Jobs was just 30 years old, wildly successful, fabulously wealthy and a global celebrity when he was suddenly fired. But that firing turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was when he came back to Apple that most of the iconic products we know and use today were launched because in his time away, he had learned how to execute.

If you perceive yourself or are perceived as having an “execution problem,” by others, you will benefit from knowing the fundamental reasons why.

Reason #1: You Don’t Have the Right Mindset

In strategy sessions, people often ask questions like: “What would success look like?” and “What action will you take to implement the strategy?” These questions and their answers do not lead to change. That is because, as we have established above, we have a people problem and people are about behavior. And obviously, if you are asking the wrong questions, you will get the wrong answers. Because we are a culture obsessed with positivism, we look to assets and strengths. Fair enough. But what about weaknesses? The right question to ask instead is: “What current behavior do I see in myself, my team, my manager, or my organization that will make success less likely?”

This question is about facing reality, which is a pre-requisite for strategy execution. By articulating the answer to this question, you are identifying the potential barriers to progress, which you must first remove before you can see change. You are also recognizing that behaviors drive results and that mindset drives behavior. To impact change, you have to shift the mindset that leads to behaviors that are not getting results. This is fundamental.

Reason #2: You Don’t Have the Right Goals (or you have too many of them)

Sometimes, people are focused on the wrong things and sometimes they are focused on too many things. If you try to attend to all of your competing priorities, you will lose focus. It is far better to apply more energy against fewer goals because, when it comes to setting goals, the law of diminishing returns kicks in which says in a nutshell that you will achieve 2-3 goals with excellence and 5-6 goals with mediocrity . That is because human beings are genetically hardwired to do one thing at a time with excellence. Multi-tasking is a myth. It causes an overload of the brain’s processing capacity.

Once you have the right goals and the right number of goals, you can identify the right people with the right strengths to apply towards specific goals. Here, you will have to make choices. Execution is about being laser focused and maintaining momentum. The pitfall is trying to get forward momentum on all your work instead of the most important work. You have ask yourself: “What will make the biggest impact?” and “What will get me the biggest bang for my buck?” Then, you have to make that thing happen.

Reason #3: You Don’t Have the Right People

In any team, organization, or coalition, there are strong performers and weaker ones. There are those that are fit for the task because the task speaks to their strengths and those that aren’t because, well, it doesn’t. Strong performers can be identified by their skills, knowledge and commitment. In any environment, you should know the strengths of the people are at the table. If you take a purely democratic and all-inclusive approach, you will miss the opportunity to identify the people who are most essential to achieving your goal. In the case of yourself this becomes about self-awareness.

Reason #4: You Don’t Have the Right Mechanism

Execution is a discipline and, well, it takes discipline to execute. What I mean by that is having the discipline to organize people, assemble resources, and then generate a plan that others can follow in a methodical and systematic process is what it takes to make progress. Organizations (formal or informal) and their related processes are largely conservative bodies that don’t like surprises or chaos. Therefore, you have to be as methodical in your approach as possible. This means disciplined project management, feedback loops, data driven decision making, clear roles and responsibilities, accountability measures, success metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs), kaizen (continuous improvement), scrum, agile, Six Sigma, Lean and so on.

Reason #5: You Don’t Have the Right Support

Finally, if you’ve made it this far and you really feel like you’re already doing all of these things, and yet somehow you’re still perceived as having an “execution problem,” then consider getting an Implementation Coach. Coaching is often used in organizations to fix leadership flaws, but that is only one focus of coaching. If the problem is truly endemic, I recommend hiring an Implementation Coach. The role of an Implementation Coach is to ensure that implementation success is a priority, working at the deepest level to build the skills, knowledge, capacities, systems, and processes needed to deliver results and then to ensure those results will be sustained. The main imperative of an Implementation Coach should be to delivering lasting outcomes.

In addition to being outstanding problem-solvers, these individuals are practical, experienced, and excellent coaches. Their distinctive strength is in knowing how to work with and coach people to get things done. These caching session are about focusing on larger behavioral patterns to the extent that they are getting in the way of the task at hand.

 A Final Word…

Ideas are a dime a dozen. I can give you 20 good ones in one conversation. Ideas without implementation are illusion. The art and science of success lies in their execution. Put another way, “the devil is in the implementation.” Many people get energetic about their ideas but fail when it comes time to establishing a systematic approach to execute on those ideas and fail in maintaining motivation. I’ll deal with motivation in some upcoming posts. For now, remember this: execution is a discipline in and of itself. It is the flip side of the coin to planning and setting the right strategy. You need both to succeed.

Good luck.

Wait! Before you go…

I really appreciate that you are reading my post. If you found it valuable, please like, comment, and share it with your network so that it can benefit others.  I also invite you to follow me on LinkedIn or subscribe to my BLOG to receive exclusive content not found here.

Why would you follow me?

I write personal and professional development articles to help readers be the most effective human being they can be; in short, to help you find your inner awesomeness. By liking, commenting, sharing, and following, you are encouraging me to keep going. It is my direct feedback loop that tells me that I am providing value to you.

I also love connecting with new people and seeing what others are up to in the world.

Last thing, if you liked this post, consider checking out my other recent posts for inspiration and concrete actions steps to become more effective at work and life.



©2018 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.


Life is a Game of Inches

C1VOvQvW8AA5vZUApril 11, 2017 • 10 minute read • by Saeed

“Little strokes fell great oaks.”Benjamin Franklin

Life (insert success, innovation, change etc.) is not a moon shot. There are no silver bullets, overnight success stories, lottery bonanzas, and sudden epiphanies that lead to big bang solutions. You can’t leap frog your way into the CEO chair. You can’t just quit the job you hate to be your own boss tomorrow.


Does it ever happen? Yes, of course it does. But those are the one-offs. The aberrations. The deviations from the norm. Look beyond the gloss and the hype and you’ll discover that most overnight success stories were years in the making. If you want to be an overnight success, you have to be an everyday hustler.

In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell famously posited that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become world-class in any field. That’s about 10 years to you and me. Deliberate practice, in turn, requires patience and above all self-discipline. It is not a lack of luck but a lack of self-discipline that makes success elusive for so many.

To make matters worse, stress and chronic dissatisfaction with jobs (insert relationships, finances, fitness etc.)  become the flames of urgency that stoke your false belief that everything has to happen right now. With no concrete goal or system in place to move the ball forward, you are left frustrated and unhappy.

I’ve obsessed over and studied the back stories of hundreds of successful people. Here’s the deeper insight into how they level up that almost no one talks about: success is about doing the work. It is about action and action is about  implementation, follow-through, and completion. You get there, not in one giant leap of faith, but in one small step at a time. That is the difference between winning and losing.

Success is about inches not yards

In the movie Any Given Sunday, a once-great (American) football team that is now plagued with injuries and internal dissension, is struggling to make the playoffs. The coach, played by Al Pacino, has to give a speech (must watch) to his players that will motivate them to put aside their differences and work together as a team.

Pacino starts with expressing that he is overwhelmed by the situation. At first, he appears a broken man similar to his players. Then, he changes gradually to a sage who offers words of profound wisdom and a solution for how to win in life and in the game.

“You know when you get old in life things get taken from you.

That’s, that’s part of life.

But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.

You find out that life is just a game of inches.

So is football.

Because in either game life or football the margin for error is so small.

I mean one half step too late or to early you don’t quite make it.

One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it.

The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.”

Winston Churchill said that a speech is poetry without form or rhyme. This is one of the greatest inspirational speeches ever captured on celluloid. It is regularly used in courses about public speaking, rhetoric, coaching, and teamwork. Even if you don’t like American football, you will love this speech because it’s really about life. It is about how you execute on a plan. How you reach a goal. It is about how life battles aren’t won with a huge step or a big achievement. It is about how you progress and continually improve “inch by inch” with small steps and tasks done with full effort.

Kaizen – Cultivating a mindset of discipline

One approach to continuous and incremental improvement originated in Japan and is called kaizen. The word translates to mean change (kai) for the good (zen). Kaizen is more philosophy than tool, more mindset than mechanism. It is responsible for the success of lean Japanese manufacturing but you can gain the benefits of kaisen at the personal, team, and organizational level. Much of the focus of kaisen is on reducing waste while increasing efficiency. The genius of kaizen is that it recognizes that improvement is not a destination, it is a process. It is a 4-step circular process usually executed in a systematic manner with some variation of these elements: assess, plan, implement and evaluate (another version is plan, do, check, act). 


Kaizen is about instilling discipline where previously there was none. It’s about showing up and doing the work in a systematic manner, one step, one hour, one task, and one improvement at a time. Like sunlight through a magnifying glass, laser focused discipline applied in a systematic manner towards an objective or a goal has magical power.


All achievement follows deliberate and disciplined action.

Kaizen strives to even out the uneven nature of improvement. It is an antidote to the adrenaline fueled panic that you get when you realize your life is passing you by, your business is failing, or your team is falling apart. It is the counterbalance to those moments where you decide that you are going to tackle xyz once and for all, forever and for good only to have your fiery ambition extinguished within a matter of days or at the first setback you experience.

Focusing on big goals far into the distant future may inspire awe and wonderment at first. It may even give you a boost of motivation. But inevitably it leads to stupefaction, paralysis and inaction. Motivation is easy to find but hard to maintain. You’ll soon start looking for shortcuts and excuses for why you can’t make it to the gym or start that new blog or fill in the blank. To find success, you have to find a permanent way to get off that rollercoaster. You have to embrace the philosophy of small, gradual, incremental, and disciplined continuous improvement. The path to change is through sustained action. By breaking down big, audacious goals into small, discrete tasks, kaizen encourages that action. Live for the small wins rather than the big windfalls.

As Pacino says:

“If I am going to have any life anymore, it is because I am still willing to fight and die for that inch. Because that’s  what LIVING is. The six inches in front of your face.”

5 Ways To Reboot Your Motivation

December 19, 2014 • 8 minute read • by Saeed

“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”

– Bruce Lee –

Your manager’s job is not to motivate you. If anything, your manager’s job is to maintain the motivation you started with.

Remember? You, like everyone else who starts a new job, came on board with excitement and enthusiasm. You grinned from ear to ear when you met your new colleagues. You liked the view outside of your window. You liked your new desk. Your cubicle. You liked it all.

But along the way, your managers slowly sucked the motivation out of you. Dysfunctional systems, lack of clarity, kooky policies, late nights, wacky performance reviews and, well you know the rest. That’s why people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their managers.

Even if your manager’s job was to motivate you, they wouldn’t know how. To be fair, some do. But most don’t. If they did, a recent Gallup Poll would not have found that worldwide, only 13% of employees are engaged at work! Listen carefully. These extrinsic factors can be demotivating, but research shows that even if managed brilliantly, fixing these factors won’t motivate you to work harder or smarter.

Most managers are still stuck on the carrot-and-stick approach of the industrial age. The secret to high performance isn’t reward and punishment. Far from it. True motivation is intrinsic. It is the drive to do something because it is meaningful and fulfilling. Most managers think you are motivated by money. But you and I know that you are not. Countless surveys on employee motivation have shown that money is much farther down the list for you.

In his book, Drive, former Al Gore speech writer Daniel Pink says true motivation boils down to three elements: Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the desire to continually improve at something that matters to us, and purpose, the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves.

Motivation that is sustained is based on meaningful work, challenge, learning, growth, increasing responsibility and feeling good about what you do. You may or may not be able to attain this on your current job. You may have to find another one or even switch careers. You may have to stop doing meaningless work and finally go after that thing that has always stirred your passion. You may have to start mainlining frappuccinos.

But in the meantime, there are a few things you can do to reboot your motivation where you are now. At least, you owe it to yourself to try.

1. Take responsibility for your own motivation

What if you were in control of your own outcomes and learning objectives at work? Talk to your manager. They may have assigned you a goal but they probably did not assign how you are supposed to reach that goal. Trust in your abilities. If you lack skills, learn new ones by taking a class. Talk to your colleagues and ask for help. There is no shame in that. Learn to take initiative and be proactive on a daily basis. Become more self-directed. Take responsibility for your own growth.

2. Get inspired

Inspiration is one of the best motivators around and your best source for inspiration is your own sense of creativity. Do you like photography? Take a class. Do you like to write? Start a blog. Do you like art? Go to a museum. Are you inspired by ideas? Listen to a TED talk. Think back to your childhood. What did you love to do? When did you feel so lost in an activity that you lost track of time? Do more of that. Join a community of people who are doing more of that. Meetup is a great source for this. Reach in – reach out. Don’t be afraid. It’s medicine for your soul.

3. Find your purpose

It may be stating the obvious, but your purpose is entirely unique to you. To find your purpose, you need perspective. You have to see the dance floor from the balcony view. Ask yourself: what am I really good at doing? What do I love to do? How would either of those things add value to the world? What would I be happy to do even if I wasn’t paid for doing it? If you are not sure yet, volunteer your skills at a non-profit or a community group. Giving to others selflessly, will help you feel fulfilled and purposeful. The greatest untapped source of motivation is a sense of service to others (hint: that includes your teammates and your boss). Finally, try this: imagine yourself on your deathbed looking back at your life. What kind of life would you have had to lead in order to feel it was a life filled with purpose? Write the answer down. This is your manifesto from now on.

4. Write stuff down

Your deepest thoughts in a leather bound journal is great. But even for mundane daily things, write stuff down. When you make your own schedule and write your own to-do list, you will recognize what needs to be done and the best way to do it. You’ll become more efficient, focused and more effective at your daily life. You’ll feel more empowered and in control. You’ll get more stuff done. You’ll feel better and more motivated. Writing is also cathartic. We move so quickly from day to day that we barely have time to process what happened to us on Monday before it’s Friday again. Journaling, even for a few minutes a day, will help you understand your own feelings and motivations. Then, you can strengthen the things that motivate you and abandon those that don’t. Try it, it works.

5. Get a coach (or at least a cheerleader)

This may be one of the more expensive ways to motivate yourself, but the investment is worthwhile. We can all use a thought partner in the journey of life. That person is not always our relationship partner. A professional coach will work with you in a structured framework with the aim of achieving tangible results. Professional coaches know about motivation. If you struggle with communication, they can help you be more assertive. If you struggle with stress, they can help you combat it. If you struggle with your boss, they can help you find ways to manage up. They can help you face your fear of success or your fear of failure.

I know a lot of this is easier said than done. But give it time, be patient. Results won’t come overnight but they will come. Work towards creating new habits and abandoning old ones that no longer serve you. Monitor your thoughts to keep them positive. If you hear negative thoughts, stop them. If you are unable to achieve your goals, it may only be because they are too big not because you are incapable. So break them down and create mini goals. Take smaller bites off the apple and take responsibility for your own success. Ultimately, you may even shape the organization you are in and have a positive impact and legacy. You may even begin to like your job again.

Good luck.

©2014 – All Images and Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

The Gift of Failure

December 17, 2014 • 10 minute read • by Saeed

“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”

– William James –

He did not speak a word until he was 4 years old. When he did speak, he muttered incomprehensibly to himself causing his parents great alarm. He was visual. He tended to think in pictures rather than words. He had great difficulty memorizing words, texts and names. Compounding his poor performance in school, he routinely showed his disdain for authority. He was eventually expelled and told he would never amount to much. He flunked his college entrance exam. When he did finally get in, he skipped classes that didn’t interest him and he antagonized his teachers. By today’s standards, he would have been said to have had observable learning disabilities. He would have been labeled dyslexic, autistic or suffering from a personality disorder. Socially, he was inept. He was awkward, aloof, self-isolating and emotionally detached. His hair was long and unkempt and his clothes were old and drabby. He didn’t like public speaking or socializing. He was a philanderer, who had multiple affairs and a child out of wedlock.

By all measures, he would have been considered a failure before it was discovered he was a genius and before he radically changed our understanding of the universe. His name was Albert Einstein. And he is but one example out of many social outcasts and underperformers, who were considered failures but ended up achieving greatness.

In our modern culture, we stigmatize and try to avoid failure (and people we consider to be failures) at all costs. We worship at the altar of success. New York Times columnist David Brooks sees the American fixation on productivity and professional success as an epidemic that is contributing to our cultural demise. This is more or less the same sentiment expressed in the quote above by William James– one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced – more than a century ago.

So what is the opportunity cost for our societal obsession and hunger for success and what is the price we pay for our fear of failure?

Failure builds strength

While Wikipedia and Webster would like you to believe differently, success and failure are not polar opposites. “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor,” said Truman Capote. You often need to endure heart wrenching failure before you achieve success. Entrepreneurs have always understood this. Risk and failure are inherent to the process of innovation and success. The learning organization is not only the one that learns from its successes, but the one that is most willing to speak openly about its failures. But organizational egos get in the way. I noticed this first hand in my own work in philanthropy. Funders go out of their way to demonstrate that a project they have invested in is working. They never produce reports that demonstrate why a project failed – and they never admit their own role in the failure. Instead, they abandon grantees and move on to new projects rather than address the challenges within the existing ones. Of course, we should not throw additional resources at a losing proposition. But without a post mortem of our failures, we bury our heads in the proverbial sand and limit our chances for learning and innovation. We lose the opportunity to strengthen our knowledge base.

Failure builds knowledge

We fear failure. We fear jeopardizing our jobs and our careers if something fails on our watch. The reality is that in organizational life, failure, if managed well, can be enormously beneficial. Companies need to learn how to manage failure and mine the wisdom contained within it. Of course, blindly stumbling from one failure to another is fool-hearted. But a culture of continuous innovation requires organizational leaders to build psychologically safe environments so that the lessons of failure can be reaped without shame or blame. Leaders should provide the organizational structures that allow people to fail and to capitalize on the lessons learned and opportunities gained for improvement. Leaders need to create organizational environments where thoughtful experimentation, or what Duke University professor of management Sim Sitkin calls intelligent failures, are considered the norm and are used to advance knowledge and develop organizational resilience.

Failure builds resilience

“Through failure we learn how to cope,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. Experimentation is the true mother of innovation (and success). It also naturally spawns failure. But today’s parents go to great lengths to remove failure from the equation in a misguided effort to sanitize childhood. In our education system, we give primacy to testing over learning. As Elkind puts it, “Parents and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they’re geared to academic achievement.” What we learn in childhood about failure is the lesson of shame and blame. Even without meaning to, we carry the guilt, shame, disappointment, and pain we associate with failure from our childhood into our adulthood and into our professional lives. This hyper-vigilance and over-protectiveness in childhood has the net effect of making us more fragile and less resilient in adulthood. It means that we never develop the fortitude and strength of character to bounce back from difficult experiences – to get up after a fall and go at it again. We never learn, for example, to master stress effectively. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that resilient people choose the way they think. Resilience is born out of repeated experience, that may in many instances, be perceived as negative. Resilient organizations need resilient people.

Failure builds experience

It never ceases to amaze me how closed minded some people can be. I recently spoke to an entrepreneur who was trying to get back into the workforce after she had been away for nearly 5 years. She had rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and had dug knee deep in her own startup venture. Like many first time entrepreneurs, she had experienced initial success but had ultimately been crushed by the competition. Trying to get back into the workforce, she described to me her experience of reluctant hiring managers who were denying her re-entry as if she had neglected to get her hand stamped when she had walked out of that club. Personally, I would favor hiring an entrepreneur who had risked but failed than a “lifer” who has never stepped outside of their comfort zone. Her experience, fortitude and persistence would be a major asset to any organization. Indeed, many venture capitalists won’t invest in a new enterprise if the founder has never undergone failure. Such experience not only builds character but it also feeds our emotional intelligence.

Failure builds intuition

A 2004 Nobel Prize winning discovery of how we recognize the smell of an orange suggests that intuition is a form of highly developed pattern recognition. In other words, it is an algorithm used by the nervous system to extract information and experience from the vast database of the mind. That database requires data entry. If you have never faced a negative outcome you have a critical gap in the body of experience that intuition is based on. Unfortunately, the demand for creating an organizational culture that can effectively capitalize on failure is in short supply in most companies. Fear, embarrassment, intolerance, lack of commitment to learning and a culture where experimentation and learning from failure is not supported, exacerbates the problem. Organizational hierarchies stifle the conversation about failure and with it, our potential for flexing our intuitive muscles. The main alternative to the intuition-based approach is rational thinking. Yet, we have all faced business situations where the rational decision making process becomes impractical. Throughout my own personal and professional life, intuition has been an invaluable tool when decision making and rapid response have been required. Howard Raiffa, professor of managerial economics and a pioneer in the field of decision analysis says that formal techniques and procedures used in today’s business environment actually inhibit our intuitive capacity from operating effectively. To use only logic and quantitative analysis in business, is to deny our own emotional intelligence – one of the most important traits of leadership.

Rather than surfacing the lessons that come from our failures, we drive our potential for innovation underground. It cannot be disputed that within our personal and professional failures is a gold mine of wisdom waiting to be tapped. But to access that wisdom, we have to work towards a collective consciousness that is free of blame and free of the stigma associated with failure. We must also learn to fail with intelligence and know when to declare defeat. Obviously, not all failures are useful, and even some that we could learn from we should avoid. We must recognize that the failures that harm us the most are only the ones we repeat. We must be-friend failure and stop fetishizing success. We must fail often but we must fail forward in order to build resilience in the face of failure. As one of my favorite Japanese proverbs says: we must fall seven times but stand up eight.

Good luck.

©2014 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

You Can Change The World. If You Think You Can’t, Then You Won’t.

December 10, 2014 • 6 minute read • by Saeed

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

– Mark Twain –

Thought to self: if you think you can’t, then you won’t.

It was July 1989 and this was the thought that came into my head as I was cycling up National Highway 1D, also known as the Srinagar-Leh Highway, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in Northern India. This 262 mile (422 km) stretch of road connects Srinigar, the capital city of Kashmir (locally regarded as the Switzerland of India), to Leh, the capital city of Ladakh (“land of high passes”), where the people are predominantly Tibetan and where, except in prayer, they do not have the concept of the wheel in their lives (evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the second half of the 4th millennium BC).

The Srinagar-Leh Highway is one of only two roads that connect the highly remote and forbidding region of Ladakh with the rest of India. The highest pass on the road is at 13,478 ft (4,108 m) elevation, which is approximately half the height of Earth’s tallest mountain, at 29,029 ft (8,848 m) elevation. The road generally remains open for traffic from early June to mid-November but heavy snowfall blocks traffic, cutting the region off from the rest of the world for some six months each year.

I was young and inexperienced. My cycling shoes were a pair of flip flops purchased in a New Delhi night market (BTW: best pair of footwear I have ever owned – seriously). My panniers were filled, not with rations for survival, but with philosophy and anthropology books, a Sony Walkman and music cassette tapes (Steve Jobs: where were you then?).

My fuel was an unreasonably large-sized bag of dried apricots (they have been cultivated in Central Asia since antiquity and the dried ones were an important commodity on the Silk Road). I had purchased them in the town of Kargil, an important transit hub, which sits at about the half-way point (and when you’re there please try the restaurant on the third floor of the building in the main street near the mosque, which offers pleasant and inexpensive Tibetan dishes – and tell Lobsang I said hello!).

The day I set off from Kargil, was the day I planned to cycle to the highest pass on the road.

That day was all climb. And as I did, I naturally began to wonder what in the world had possessed me to torture myself in this cruel way. The more negatively I thought, the more I felt my brain, not my body, giving up. There were certainly plenty of physiological considerations. The air was thin, but I had acclimated. Physical conditioning was required, but I had been on the road for more than six months. My body sponged up water, but I was hydrated and my gut was full of; well dried apricots (one serving cup delivers 81 grams of total carbohydrate).

It was not my body but my brain that was telling me that I can’t do it.

You may have heard the old adage that sport is 10% physical and 90% mental. Psychologists began studying sports in the nineteen thirties and forties. Research conducted in the 60’s and 70’s concluded that mental practice facilitated motor performance in about fifty percent of the studies. More recent control group studies of performance athletes have validated the earlier findings and gone further concluding that the brain gives up and subsequently sends signals to the body to also cease, even though the body is not showing physical signs of complete exhaustion. Not only do the new studies emphasize the idea of mind over matter, but they also demonstrate that the brain can be trained to allow the body to physically handle more. It is the brain that holds us back from pushing past a certain point and allows or limits our endurance performance rather than the body. But we often confuse mental fatigue with physical fatigue.

So, brain is boss and by that logic we must manage up.

The brain comes conveniently equipped with a control mechanism to make sure that the marathon runner reaches the finishing line not in a completely shattered state. There is always a little reserve. You may be the next Usain Bolt or you may be a nonprofit program manager or a social entrepreneur in the process of pursuing a new innovative solution to solve a vexing social problem. Whatever your goal, be it conquering a hill or a mountain or changing the world, you will have to be persistent in the face of challenges, adversities and failures in order to ultimately succeed.

When your brain throws un-motivating messages at you, it may just be that same control mechanism that exerts its influence over athletes, holding you back from pushing past a certain point. As with athletes, the secret to success comes with structure, discipline and focus.

Most of the time, success does not happen overnight or on the first try. There will be times when you will want to give up and when you will feel you have nothing left. You will ponder the challenges and you will wonder what possessed you to do this in the first place. You will run out of money, fans and friends. There will be times when you will simply think you can’t. The same way you train your body for endurance, you must also train (or trick) your mind for perseverance. It is your mind that will push you that final step, or hold you back from realizing your dream. If you succumb to the trickery of your mind and think you can’t, then you won’t.

I made it that day and I can tell you unequivocally, it wasn’t the apricots.

©2014 – All images and content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.