The Ability to Bounce Back

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

A recent study by Adaptiv Learning System reported upon in the Harvard Business Review placed resilience on top of a short list of qualities essential to success. To get your goals accomplished, Adaptiv’s CEO Dean Becker said, the ability to accept reality and bounce back in the face of impending disaster counts “more than education, more than experience, and more than training.”

I was reminded of this article during a conversation with my old partner JSN over lunch the other day.

“Do you remember how our business was just before we made our first million?” he asked me. I had to admit that I didn’t.

“We were in the hole almost twice that much,” he said. “Before you made your first hundred grand, you were struggling with a personal debt of about $200,000 — about four times what you were making.”

That dreadful year came flooding back into my memory. Most of all, I remembered how scared I was, how psychologically burdened by that debt, and how much I wanted to close everything down and get a job as a check-out clerk in a supermarket. Luckily for me, JSN was resilient. He had lived through plenty of tough times before, and he knew the value of just sticking it out. “When all else fails,” he told me once, “just close your eyes and walk forward.”

Bolstered by his pluck, we kept pushing forward — and one bright spring day, one of our packages started working. A week after that, another one did … and a year later, I was a relatively wealthy young guy.

That experience taught me the value of resilience, but one lesson wasn’t enough to make it a permanent, instinctual reflex. I continued to fail, and my failures continued to hurt. But having had success once, I was able to bounce back again and again — sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Even today, my first reaction is often “screw it.” Just yesterday, for example, I headed up what I hoped would be a brilliant brainstorming session. For four hours, I did my special thing with seven very bright and creative people, pushing and prodding, asking questions, and making comments. The session began strongly but somewhere halfway through lost steam — and was barely moving when time ran out.

It was a very embarrassing, dispiriting experience. I felt as if I had made a bit of a fool of myself, trying out some newfangled brainstorming technique that everyone knew would never work.

I went to bed wishing it were a bad dream. But I woke up with a new resolve: “We have to try again,” I thought. “Bring the group back together and try something else. Forget about the failure and my leading role in it and get back to what we were there for — to create a breakthrough new promotion.” So I wrote a memo suggesting just that. And then the ideas started coming — better ways to get the work done, different techniques, new questions. The anguish was starting to subside, a sense of positive expectation setting in.

Note: This is another example of what I’ve been saying about attitude vs. behavior. What fixed this particular situation was not fixing my attitude. It was writing the memo (i.e., bouncing back). That resilience led to a better feeling. So this resilience thing is something you may have to struggle with all your life. As I write this message, there is a wooden paperweight on my desk that JSN bought for me from Levengers … it must have been more than 15 years ago … soon after that life-changing experience. It’s a quote from Winston Churchill: “Never give in. Never give in, never, never, never …”

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]