Failing v. Falling Short

The company I worked for hired a new Executive Vice President (EVP) of Sales & Marketing and I lost the sometimes enjoyable position of being the only person in the company who knew anything about marketing, and therefore the one whose recommendations about what we should do got followed most of the time.

Within the first two weeks of his arrival he sat me down and went through the current state of our marketing. Had I done this? What about that? Had we ever considered such-and-such? None of this list, which went on for about 15 minutes, was something I hadn’t thought of, but the answer to most of these questions was “No, we haven’t gotten to that yet.” The state of our marketing sounded dreadful even to me and, to be honest, I’d thought it was dreadful the whole 16 months I “ran the department.”

I went home and cried and announced, “I failed!”

“You didn’t fail,” said my husband.

“You didn’t fail,” said my parents. My dad added that the reason I hadn’t been able to get these things done was that I didn’t have the title. While it’s true that the EVP is helped by the fact that he is an EVP, you don’t get to be an Executive-anything without some ability to influence, so I didn’t think that was an excuse. (John Maxwell backs me up on this; he says the way to find out if someone is truly a leader is to look at them when they’re in a volunteer situation and don’t have positional authority behind them.)

I continued to maintain that I had failed.

But failure is a remarkably popular topic in business literature today and at some point, somewhere, I read something that finally clicked.

A funny thing happened, too. When I was responsible I heard nothing but complaints. We should be doing this, we need more of that, and did you know the screenshot on this piece of marketing material has a sliver missing from the edge? Once I wasn’t in charge any more people I’d never thought had noticed me started coming out of the woodwork saying what a “phenomenal” job I had done considering the situation (no budget, no support, etc).

And you know what? I had. In a lot of ways I moved us to the next level of marketing: our first advertising campaign; our first suite and pre-show promotion at the biggest tradeshow of the year; the launch of a dynamic, editable website; researching, campaigning for, and finally buying a large and essential piece of software; and a few other things along the way.

What I realized is that to classify anything short of perfection as failure is to doom oneself to a life of failure. Not the helpful kind of making a mistake, dusting off and learning from the experience. I mean the kind of soul-eating certainty that one is oneself a failure which makes success impossible.

Falling short is a better term. There are probably those who would take equal exception to that and in another so many years I’ll probably have a different take on it myself but what I think right now is: falling short is okay. If you’re not reaching, you’re not growing, and as long as you’ve moved forward it’s okay if you’re not as far as you wanted to be. That’s not failure. I hate to quote it but it’s like that silly old saying, “If you aim for the moon and miss, at least you’ll land among the stars.”

Oh, I definitely fell short. In a bit of irony, in the last two weeks of being in charge I made a very daring and scary and successful decision that opened up a whole new view of the freedom and authority I’d never realized I had. If you must know, I approved on my own authority a sum 14 times larger than any I had ever dared to approve before – and when I told him, my then-boss didn’t bat an eyelash. “Oh well,” he pretty much said, “It needed to be done and these things cost money.” It made me wonder how much more I could have gotten done if my own attitude and fearfulness hadn’t held me back.

But I didn’t fail. Thrown in over my head, I didn’t suddenly turn into a prodigy of leadership or a miracle-worker who could accomplish what an eventually-three-person team still struggled to do. It wasn’t reasonable to expect such a thing and, reasonable or not, it wasn’t possible. Not doing the impossible isn’t failure.

Realizing that is, I think, a success in itself.

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