Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday, December 2, 2011

Lessons on Failure: A Chapter from “Chuck” vs. the Business World

by Ray Keating
Business Tips on TV #5

The following is a chapter from “Chuck” vs. the Business World: Business Tips in TV by Ray Keating.

Failure sucks. Nonetheless, failure is part of life, and it’s certainly part of business. It also can be a valuable experience for learning important lessons.

Many entrepreneurs, for example, experience business failure – sometimes multiple failures – before they hit on the idea, the right enterprise, that succeeds. But even successful firms will undertake ventures that ultimately come up short.

It’s not all that different on the career front. For most of us, the career path is not a smooth ride relentlessly higher. Instead, there tend to be some potholes, detours or roadblocks along the way.
The question is: What do business owners, managers and individuals do with failure?

Consider two Chuck examples.

• In 1983, after dedicating three years of his life to a video game, Jeff was the Missile Command world champion. He was on top of his world, with the media and beautiful women seeking him out. (Season 1, Episode 5: “Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer”)

But success was fleeting. Later, after decades of drinking, drugs and who knows what else, Jeff has the opportunity to return to greatness – to reach the kill screen of Missile Command. But he faints in front of cheering fans before even beginning his return.

Later, after Chuck beats the game, Jeff goes back to playing Missile Command, but with no one else around.

• After choosing to not run away with Sarah, Chuck fails the training to become a real spy. He has lost everything he wanted – Sarah, the “girl of his dreams,” and the life of a spy. (Season 3, Episode 1: “Chuck Versus the Pink Slip”)

What does Chuck do?

Initially, he sleeps, sits on the couch in a bathrobe, watches television, lets his facial hair grow, and eats cheese balls. The only thing that motivates him to get off the couch is to get more cheese balls at the Buy More.

After Chuck is recognized despite his disguise of dark sunglasses, hat, beard and robe, Emmett says Chuck carries the “putrid stench of failure,” telling others “that’s why you don’t leave the Buy More.” He adds to Chuck: “My God, you’re pathetic.”

Later, Morgan attempts some encouragement by telling Chuck: “You’re slightly unmotivated, a bit of an underachiever, but a loser? That’s not your turf.”

Chuck responds, “I blew it buddy, opportunity of a lifetime. Without getting into specifics, I had a job offer that would have included a lot of travel and excitement, and I’ve already been fired from it twice.”

But Chuck eventually decides to get back in the game, to prove that he indeed can be a good spy.

Chuck Business Tips

Failure crushes Jeff, with the life squeezed out of him. In contrast, after suffering setbacks and briefly wallowing in some self-pity, Chuck rises above his failure.

The fundamental difference is that Chuck learns and ultimately grows due to his failure.
In one’s career and in business in general, failure must be treated as a learning opportunity. If not, it has the ability to make one bitter, pessimistic, and stagnant. It’s not unusual to try to shift the blame to others for one’s own mistakes or shortcomings.

As noted earlier, most successful entrepreneurs have experienced failure, learned from such setbacks, and ultimately treated failure as temporary stops while climbing the ladder of success.
Examples include Milton Hershey, who failed several times in the candy business, before founding and building the Hershey Company. And even after establishing this market-leading chocolate candy manufacturer, there were some failures along the way, including chewing gum and a bad bet borrowing in the sugar market.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc, who was either ousted from or chose to leave the firm in 1985, failed at his new venture Next. But in 1997, Jobs returned to lead an Apple that was on the brink of bankruptcy, subsequently taking the company to a global technology leader.

In an October 2, 2010, New York Times article titled “What Steve Jobs Learned in the Wilderness,” Randall Stross, a professor at San Jose State University, pointed out:

The Steve Jobs who returned to Apple was a much more capable leader — precisely because he had been badly banged up. He had spent 12 tumultuous, painful years failing to find a way to make the new company profitable… And he had always been able to attract great talent. What he hadn’t learned before returning to Apple, however, was the necessity of retaining it. He has now done so. One of the unremarked aspects of Apple’s recent story is the stability of the executive team — no curb filled with dumped managers. Kevin Compton, who was a senior executive at Businessland during the Next years, described Mr. Jobs after returning to Apple: “He’s the same Steve in his passion for excellence, but a new Steve in his understanding of how to empower a large company to realize his vision.” Mr. Jobs had learned from Next not to try to do everything himself, Mr. Compton said.

An amusing Chuck moment highlights the lofty position Apple has risen to in recent years.

Lester tells Chuck that the Nerd Herd has a Linux install.

Chuck asks, “I’m sorry, why can’t you and Jeff go?”

Lester laughs in a mocking tone, and says, “Linux, PCs, we’re Mac guys, Chuck. We’re IT artists.” (Season 1, Episode 2: “Chuck Versus the Helicopter”)

The lofty success achieved by Jobs at Apple was unlikely without Steve Jobs having experienced and learned from his failures.

Managers need to keep in mind the idea of failure as a teaching moment when dealing with their employees. Failure is going to occur to some degree in any organization. Managers need to not only communicate clearly the consequences or costs of failure, but also provide feedback so that workers can learn from failure and over the longer haul, become better employees and more successful individuals.


Ray Keating is the author of “Chuck” vs. the Business World: Business Tips on TV (available at He also is an economist, weekly newspaper columnist, and adjunct college business professor.