Weeds are Flowers too…

Last September, I had the good fortune to listen to a presentation from Canadian Alpine Ski Racer, Manny Osborne Paradis. Manny’s sport is downhill ski racing in which he continues Canada’s legacy initiated by Crazy Canucks like Ken Read and Steve Podborski from the 70s and 80s. Downhill Ski racing is the original extreme sport. It can be thought of as Formula 1 on skis where gravity is the engine, the athlete’s legs the suspension, and their body the chassis. It’s a wild ride on skis through treacherous terrain and slippery steep slopes where they reach speeds in excess of 150km/hr. Manny continues as a professional athlete today after fifteen seasons with the National Team. During this time Manny has distinguished himself as a consistent high performer. He has achieved 12 world cup podiums on the international stage which includes three victories. He has one from the early days of his career in 2006 through most recently a World Championship bronze medal in 2017. Manny is the first Canadian to win both a Super G and Downhill event. Moreover, Manny has represented his country at four separate Winter Olympic games. His first Olympic Games was in 2006 at Torino, Italy, then Vancouver in 2010, then Sochi, Russia in 2014, and, most recently, in Korea in 2018.

Alpine athletes like Manny risk life and limb skiing down near vertical hockey rinks in skin tight speed suits. It’s a sport populated by brash daredevils exuding confidence. Courage and commitment would seem to be the seeds of success in this sport. Insights offered by Manny seemed counterintuitive. He talked about the importance of getting comfortable with and accepting failure as an essential starting point. Yet, we default to thinking about Courage and trying to bolster our courage in the face of challenges. Nonetheless, Manny offered that courage can’t be considered without being willing to embrace failure. Failure is inevitable. Life’s difficult. Sport, business, whatever. You will meet struggles and challenges. Courage is accepting this and being willing to face it. Mark Twain reinforces Manny’s message, Twain wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”

We can’t improve without having the courage to face struggle. Manny recounted several unique and personal stories of how he has faced struggle, adversity, “failure”, and turned them or interpreted them in a way that serve him, that fuel him, that have made him better. Yet, we seem to want to hide our hurt, dance from the darkness, and escape evidence of failing while those that achieve anything of substance and significance somehow recognize the value of learning from struggles and actively seek out testing circumstances. Listening to Manny speak, I was reminded of Brene Brown’s TED talk from 2011 that has had almost 12,000,000 views. Particularly, around minute 9 of the 20 minute video. Brown talks about courage. The original meaning of the word and the kind of people who reflect it. She separates bravery from courage. Courage originally defined, according to Brown, is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart which she views as the courage to be imperfect. Brown goes on to detail that those seen with courage are those who are open to not just being vulnerable but that believe their vulnerabilities, their flaws, failures, and flops are what make them who they are. Author, John Maxwell, in his book “Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn” observes “Those who profit from adversity possess a spirit of humility and are therefore inclined to make the necessary changes needed to learn from their mistakes, failures, and losses.”

As impressive as Manny’s athletic accomplishments are, they didn’t come without pain, struggle, and difficulty. Over 15 years with 16 events a season, that’s almost 250 events in which he’s participated. Attaining world class performance or podium finishes in “just” 12 seems disappointing, it’s not. It’s an incredibly high standard of achievement. The margin of victory is so slight. The difference between winners and the balance of the top 15 in the world can be well under a second. The differences between those on the podium and just off are a few hundredths of a second. These time differences translate into distances of a few metres after reaching speeds pushing 100 MPH while travelling over 5 km of icy slopes. The stakes for world class performers are so high and achieving the pinnacles of performance is so rare, yet most never see the podium let alone experience it regularly. Even those that do achieve the highest levels of performance spend much of their time frustrated by their sport. It can be easy to question the effort, sacrifice, and risks being taken when on the wrong side of a seemingly insignificant time difference. Fans are exposed to just the good outcomes. We don’t see all the other attempts. We see the winners and what they are getting as a result – rewards and recognition.

I was reminded of a quote along the lines of “I could hardly wait until I succeeded so that I could tell everyone about everything I learned from my failures.” This quote reflects what seems to be all too often the case. We don’t want to listen to those who have failed, even if they have learned great lessons within those failures. We only want to be around and “learn from” those who have “succeeded”. We think it is the success that offers the answer. We believe the key insight comes precisely because they have now achieved something. We seem to be less interested in what was learned from the problems faced.  We have a bias to believe success. We warm to the “wisdom” of winners and avoid lining up to learn from losers. We see this even with high performance athletes. Oftentimes, they respond better to coaches whom were former athletes as opposed to coaches that don’t have athletic accomplishments. The expertise of an accomplished athlete is accepted while the decades of coaching experience of one without tons of trophies is discounted. Additionally, pregame shows for virtually all sports are populated by not just former players, but champions. They offer their expertise while sporting shiny championship rings boldly declaring their amazingness. Somehow, the ring is accepted as objective evidence of expertise that carries forward in perpetuity. Others, equally personable, but not as accomplished are ignored.

NBA Legend, Shaquille O’Neal reflected this idea when he observed “Michael Jordan told me once that you have to learn how to fail before you can learn to succeed”. I’m guessing that if it was someone that hadn’t reached the stature of Michael Jordan that the message wouldn’t have been nearly as well accepted. Perhaps, we can try to reflect on and learn from our own less than stellar experiences? Maybe instead of looking at someone’s CV, or list of awards received, or championship rings, or job titles, or numbers of degrees and alphabet soup listed after their name on email signatures, we can look for battle scars that reflect hard won wisdom from encounters with real life. It is from our struggles and difficulties where our greatest lessons come. We learn little from success other than it feels good. Positive results affirm our process. We are less likely to reflect on how we can improve as we see our results as indicating we have things all figured out. This is one reason why repeats in Sports are so rare. It’s said that nothing fails like success. Success breeds complacency. Failure feeds frustration which fosters fruitful thinking. What needs to be done differently? What needs to change? How did I contribute to the problems I/we are facing? Failure fires up our focus and forces us to face reality.

Perhaps, during these difficult and disruptive times, we can spend time to consider a few questions with respect to our businesses? What struggles have we as an organization faced in recent years and how have we used them to get better? What struggles have spurred your successes? It’s unlikely any of us were dropped off at the top of the mountain. It’s likely we have worked through any number of challenges in the past. We can draw confidence from these past efforts to apply against our anxiety today. What are challenges we’re facing today as a result of COVID-19? Are our challenges around determining how to serve our customers without having open doors? Are the challenges more around ensuring our staff and ourselves are able to work remotely? Perhaps, there’s hope that one day soon we will be able to look back on some of these challenges and see them as the impetus that led us to our next level of progress?

“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.” -Winnie the Pooh-