Fortunately, failure is your best learning opportunity

Fortunately? Absolutely; failure is central to humanity.  Failure is your best learning opportunity if you can see it in the right way.  As children, almost every one of us failed in almost everything we first tried to do:

  • We fell back the first time we tried to stand up.
  • Our first attempt at speech was little more than gibberish.
  • For many of us, first-year algebra, science 101, and even entire grades required more than one attempt before we ultimately succeeded.

We have a lot more failure from which to learn than we do success, So let’s not waste all that valuable experience.  (Still don’t see how failure is your best learning opportunity? How many of you reading this are happily married after one or more failed marriages?)   So I thought I’d share what I believe to be the one professional failure in my life that taught me way more than all the others. My best mistake, and my best learning opportunity.

A failure to communicate

I joined Pioneer Electronics, then one of the Japanese consumer electronic audio/video giants, in the late ’70s. By 1980, I had become Senior VP of Marketing and Product Development for the US. I spent 6 years with Pioneer. While there and after, my career was and continues to be rewarding. However, given the chance, there are things I would do differently. When it comes to Pioneer, nothing more than undoing my failure to sufficiently understand and adapt to the culture I was to work within.

Pioneer’s Japanese manufacturing management, me, and my staff had endless product planning meetings in the US and Japan. At those meetings, we spent countless hours discussing product plans. A typical response to our latest product request would often be, “Bill-san, we will study”.  This would be followed soon after by Japan sending us a product they, not us, had wanted all along.

Realizing this, I redoubled my efforts to make clear that what we requested was the right thing to do. I inundated them with data. Insisting we get a clear understanding of what they would send us. No more accepting a polite “Bill-san, we will study”, which I knew to be code for “We’ll do what we want.”

We were both working for the best interest of Pioneer, however, I didn’t recognize our interaction for what it was: a cultural conflict between them (Japanese men, mostly older than me, who worked for the parent company) and me (a much younger American employee of a Pioneer subsidiary.)  I missed what they did not; I worked for them. It was me who needed to adapt to their company culture, not the other way around.

The birth of Yamārashi-san!

All this was much bigger than just Pioneer. I did not appreciate the nuances of personal and professional business culture within a homogenous population, living in a relatively small geographic area. A population that only prospered because its citizens willingly subjugated their individuality for the good of the group as a whole. If they were willing to accept group leadership, which they were, they expected me to do the same.

To make matters worse, being an American, I did not shrink from confrontation. I was always up for debate, insisting my Japanese counterparts offer proof for what they believed we should do. Consequently, many of our discussions ended in argument; an outcome no consensus decision-making Japanese felt comfortable with.

Soon after I learned my new nickname, given to me by my Japanese friends, was Yamārashi-san. Mr Porcupine.

Regardless of my ability to produce, my worth and value to Pioneer were severely depleted, and my enjoyment of my work along with it. What was for a short time win/win became lose/lose, and as a result, Pioneer and I both successfully moved on to better times.

Lessons for you from My Best Mistake

It’s hard for me to imagine my career has gone better than it has, but that’s despite my failure to understand the importance of culture during my time at Pioneer. I’ve often wondered, how much better could things have been for both Pioneer and me had I known then what I know now.

So who was right, who was wrong?  Few things are black and white, this included, however, this I know for certain. It was up to me to understand and operate within their culture, not the reverse.

If you think otherwise, you don’t need to work in another country to experience what I did. You will encounter cultural differences, one company to the next, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, experience, education, language, age, gender, or any other of the seemingly unlimited things that go into defining “culture”.

Learn all you can about what that culture is and in doing so you will contribute to its natural evolutionary change, becoming a part of it in the process.

And if you find you can’t do that, move on to something better suited to who you are.

5 Famous People Who Turned Failure Into A Learning Opportunity

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, a visionary and co-founder of Apple Inc., is remembered for his significant impact on the tech industry. His journey, however, was not without its challenges. In 1985, Jobs faced a significant setback when he was ousted from Apple, the company he helped build. This was due to internal power struggles and disagreements with then-CEO John Sculley and the board. Jobs’ management style was criticized, and his approach to product development was seen as too costly. Undeterred, Jobs founded NeXT, focusing on computers for the higher-education and business markets, and later acquired The Graphics Group, which became Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar went on to produce highly successful films like “Toy Story.” In a twist of fate, Apple acquired NeXT in 1996, bringing Jobs back into the fold. He became CEO in 1997, leading the company to unprecedented heights with innovative products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling’s journey to becoming the renowned author of the “Harry Potter” series is a tale of resilience and perseverance. Before her success, Rowling grappled with depression, lived on welfare, and struggled as a single mother. Her manuscript for “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” faced rejection from 12 different publishers over several years. However, her determination never wavered. Rowling’s persistence finally paid off when Bloomsbury Publishing decided to publish her book. The “Harry Potter” series then catapulted to global fame, spawning blockbuster movies, merchandise, and theme parks. Rowling’s transformation from a life of hardships to becoming one of the most successful authors in history is a testament to her unwavering belief in her vision.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney, a pioneer in the American animation industry and the founder of The Walt Disney Company, experienced his fair share of failures before achieving monumental success. One of his early setbacks was the loss of the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his first significant creation, to Universal Studios. Additionally, his first animation studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, went bankrupt in 1923. Unfazed, Disney’s next creation, Mickey Mouse, marked the beginning of his remarkable turnaround. Mickey Mouse quickly became a cultural icon, setting the stage for Disney to build a multimedia empire that encompasses movies, theme parks, and various entertainment ventures.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, often hailed as America’s greatest inventor, had a career marked by persistent experimentation and a positive attitude towards failure. His most famous venture, the invention of the lightbulb, was preceded by thousands of unsuccessful attempts. Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” His relentless pursuit of innovation eventually led to the creation of the first commercially practical incandescent light, revolutionizing electric power generation and utility systems. Edison’s story is a powerful example of how perseverance and a constructive view of failure can lead to groundbreaking achievements.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, is celebrated for leading the country through its Civil War and for his pivotal role in abolishing slavery. However, his path to the presidency was riddled with personal and political failures. Lincoln lost several elections and faced business failures and personal tragedies, including the death of his son. Despite these challenges, his unwavering commitment to his principles and dedication to the nation’s unity and moral ethos eventually led to his election as President in 1860. His leadership during the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of slaves in Confederate territories, solidified his legacy as one of the most influential figures in American history.

  • About the Author
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William Matthies founded Coyote Insight in 2000 to help start-ups as well as established companies and brands plan for profitable growth.

In 1986 he founded what was to become the largest independent market research/database marketing company in the consumer electronics and high tech fields. By the time he sold The Verity Group in 1997, the company employed 400+ people at its California and Costa Rica offices.

Today he serves on corporate advisory boards lecturing frequently at industry events around the world on managing change, strategic planning, and customer relations.

William’s spare time is spent seeking out experiences that change his perspective, while at the same time having great fun. A few years ago, he visited Russia for a Mach 2.5 flight in a MiG 25 supersonic aircraft flying to 80,000 feet, the edge of space. Want details? Contact him, he’ll be happy to tell you about it!