Why ‘am I a success or a failure?’ is the wrong question to ask

The organizational psychologist Karl Weick is one of my intellectual heroes. Karl looks at the same things as everyone else but sees something different. He is best known for his books and articles on “sensemaking” — especially his analysis of the “collapse of sensemaking” by a team of smokejumpers who fought a terrible forest fire at Mann Gulch in Montana in 1949, which killed 12 of the 15 team members. This Mann Gulch fire and the team was the subject of Norman Maclean’s remarkable book Young Men and Fire, which Weick used as the source material.

Weick has applied his delightfully twisted thinking to dozens of other topics including theory construction, The Social Psychology of Organizing, and high-reliability organizations. It takes me a long time to read anything that Weick writes. I find myself stopping to think about one weird and wonderful observation or speculation after another. To give you a taste, when I meet a grumpy colleague, I always think about Weick’s suggestion that “Generalists should be the upbeat, positive people in the profession while specialists should be their grouchy, negative counterparts.” If you want to learn about his reasons, check out this post.

Today, I found myself thinking about Weick after I had breakfast with a former student and now old friend, Dave Lyons. Dave has helped to start several companies and held various senior positions, including director of engineering at Tesla for four years after the company was founded. I was especially taken with the praise that Dave heaped on an entrepreneur that he is advising. Dave explained this entrepreneur is great to work with because he is so focused on improving his leadership and business skills and on improving his company’s product — and thinks so little about whether he is a winner or loser.

As I drove home, I realized that this entrepreneur was living a lesson that I first learned from Weick about success and failure. I’ve blogged about it before and it inspired one of the 14 Things That I Believe about management and life. Here are Weick’s words (which draw on work by Fritz Roethlisberger, a renowned early management theorist):

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 as a result: It is best to travel through life with a focus on what you are learning and how to get a little wiser and better right now, rather than fretting or gloating over what you’ve done in the past (and seeing yourself as a winner or loser). That is how that entrepreneur thinks, why he and his product keep improving, and why Dave finds him such a delight to work with.

P.S. The source for the 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: Stanford. 2004.

Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Follow me on Twitter @work_matters, and visit my website and posts on LinkedIn. My latest book is The A–hole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Before that, I published Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. My main focus these days is on working with Huggy Rao to develop strategies and tools that help leaders and teams change their organizations for the better — with a particular focus on organizational friction. Check out my Stanford “FRICTION Podcast” at iTunes or Sticher.

This column first appeared on LinkedIn.