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"I've Learned to Question Success more than Failure"

The quote in the title comes from Kat Cole, CEO of Athletic Greens. It is a philosophy with which I agree . Like most things, it requires a bit of explanation for why.

There is a common refrain from hustle culture that we learn from failure. The concept is that we do things, we fail, and we learn from it so that next time we do better. In theory it makes perfect sense. It is also meant to try and alleviate our fear of failure.


We also need to question success. It goes to a human bias that if things go well, it is because of our actions. If things go wrong, it is because of bad luck or fate. At least the hustle culture belief takes some form of responsibility.


The thing that I question managers about after a success is this: was it a success “because of” your actions or “in spite of” your actions. The same question can be applied to failure as well.


Poker provides a great illustration of this. (Aside: I think all managers should study professional poker players as they teach a lot of concepts that are critical to managerial success.)


On any given hand, there are several factors you know (your cards and any face up cards in the game) and several factors you don’t know (what cards your opponent has and what cards are in the deck). A skilled poker player can use the information they have to estimate odds for winning and losing. They play those odds as much as they play the opponent.

Every poker player can tell you that you can play a hand perfectly and lose as well as play a hand poorly and win. High odds aren’t a guarantee, just a higher chance. Which means when evaluating how you played, you have to take winning and losing out of the equation - the result is actually meaningless.


Where Kat Cole goes with this is a bit dark - it almost implies that winning is lucky and there was something missing that should have caused a loss and didn’t. She still wants to know what that thing is so she can prepare for it next time. The better lesson is that you want to take those good results out of the equation - did you take the right actions with the information you had?


The great managers get results - but they evaluate actions and decisions not on the results, but on the actions taken and whether they were the best with the information available.

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