Volume 11, Number 11
a Secret to Success
Manz is the Nirenberg Professor of Business Leadership, University
of Massachusetts. He
is author of The Power of Failure: 27 Ways to Turn Life’s
Setbacks into Success (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2002).
There is a powerful but challenging secret about the
relationship of short-term failures to long-term successes.
This secret is very difficult for many to accept and
incorporate into their work and life, but it is an essential part
of learning how to use the power of failure.
The secret is patience.
In a recent interview for Fast Company magazine, Steve
Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, emphasized the importance of patience
for succeeding in business. He
explained that products and businesses go through three phases:
vision, patience, and execution.
And he said the patience stage is the toughest and most
The vision stage generates a great deal of excitement and
energy and the future looks promising.
Eventually the final execution stage is a time of
fine-tuning and figuring out how to be even more successful.
Both the vision and execution stages can be very satisfying
and comfortable. It’s
the middle “patience” stage that can be very difficult.
Ballmer explains, “You have to cut out parts…react to
what the market is telling you.
You get into trouble if you assume that you’re going to
reach critical mass too quickly—because it’s most likely that
you won’t. Through
all these trials you can’t lose patience.”
Ballmer goes on to explain that the recent setbacks in the
Internet economy reflect a transition from the vision stage to the
patience stage. He
also points out that many entrepreneurs cannot handle the patience
stage. Many seemed to believe the vision stage would never end or
that execution would immediately follow without a need for
patience. He cited
small Internet companies doing Superbowl ads as an example of this
misguided viewpoint. In
the end he suggests that employees and investors alike need to
either be patient or get out of the business.
the Way to Tai Chi
I suspect it is fairly easy for most to identify with
Ballmer’s sage advice. Anytime
we set out to learn or accomplish something new and significant we
likely face the same three stages and especially the challenge of
the need for patience. Personally,
patience is a tough challenge for me as I find myself failing on
my way to what I hope will be ultimate success in a variety of
One of my recent efforts has been to learn tai chi. I had a
vision of the strength, flexibility, calmness, and other health
benefits I would soon be deriving and how I would master the
technique through the help of a professional instructor and the
use of videotapes. I really wanted to go from vision to execution and had little
desire to endure the patience stage.
Consequently, despite my instructor’s advice that I take
it slow and start by learning just one or two poses of the dozens
that make up a single form (a series of moves that completes one
exercise sequence), I proceeded to try to learn a whole form,
which should normally take up to a year or more, in about a month.
In retrospect I have to laugh at myself for trying to learn
too quickly and lacking the patience to learn at an effective
pace. My teacher
pointed out it would take a great deal of work to relearn the
poses in a technically correct way.
He ended by citing an ancient wisdom story, whose essence
went something like this. A
martial arts student was studying a new set of movements under a
master and asked how long it would take to learn the new skills.
The master responded that it would take perhaps two years.
Being a bit discouraged and impatient with this answer, the
student asked how long it would take if he would study and work
very hard. To this
the master responded that then it would take him about four years.
The implication is clear—if we want to ultimately succeed
in a significant way, we need to accept and be patient with the
learning and development that go along with facing challenges. The bridge between short-term failures and ultimate success
is a challenging one, but it may well be the essential secret to
success—it is patience.