MOTIVATION, INCENTIVES & COMPENSATION
Ah, the “F” word. No one likes to say it in polite company. Especially in the professional sales world, where a positive attitude is one of the basics. We’ve all experienced it, so why are we so hesitant to talk about “f”ailure? In this exclusive Selling Power article, broadcaster and entrepreneur Tavis Smiley opens up about how he learned to embrace failure and use it as a tool for growth.
P.S. This led to his eventual success. There. We said it – the “s” word.
“Once you become successful, there’s pressure to act as if you were always fabulous and never made mistakes,” says Smiley, author of Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure (Smiley Books, 2001). “But the reality is that almost all successes start with failure.”
Motivation When You Need It
Smiley certainly knows what he’s talking about. This year marks his 20th anniversary in broadcasting, and he’s at the top of his game as a widely sought-after speaker, best-selling author, and host of a nationally syndicated TV talk show. But, as he describes in Fail Up, the path to his current success included some significant lapses in judgment: writing bad checks, mooching off of friends, graduating 15 years late from college because he flunked a course in his senior year. Even after reaching adulthood and beginning to climb the career ladder, Smiley suffered some very public setbacks, including being roundly criticized by members of the black community for refusing to endorse Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race.
Smiley has authored several motivational and self-help books but wanted Fail Up to be different. “I knew that if I didn’t tell the whole story, I couldn’t empower people,” he says, “so I decided to lay out every mistake for the world to see. You can’t have success without first having the experience of failure; they’re completely intertwined, and most people will tell you they learned far more from their failures than they ever did from their successes.”
Of course, the first step in learning from your mistakes is admitting that you made them, and Smiley says many people stumble on this step even before they begin. “America is all about winning,” he says, “and if you’re not on top, number one, and leading the sales team, it may seem that you don’t really count. But I don’t know anyone who operates at that level all the time. We’ve gotten the idea that the process and journey are irrelevant.”
Make a Friend
Smiley suggests you learn to see failure, not as an enemy, but as a friend. “Failure is preparation,” he says. “Babe Ruth used to say, ‘Every strike gets me closer to the next home run,’ and that’s the classic way in which winners view failure – as part of the journey and learning process. Failure is rarely fatal or final.”
Smiley notes that when he was a child, his grandmother, who was devoutly religious, taught him to view trouble in a way that he still uses as a business model. “Whenever she was faced with something difficult,” he says, “she would immediately ask two questions: What’s the lesson? What’s the blessing? It’s important to see that a situation that at first seems like a setback might be full of opportunities.”
Smiley’s personal lowest point was his very public firing from his popular BET talk show in 2001. “I was on TV every night, and that show, BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley, is what made me a household name in the black community,” he says. “But my biggest break had been when President Bill Clinton sat down with me just following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It was the first public interview he granted [after the story broke], and it helped me break into national prominence.”
No Pain, No Gain
Despite his high profile, Smiley was abruptly fired by BET founder Bob Johnson after Johnson sold the network to Viacom. Smiley describes the experience as “the single most painful experience of my professional life.” He explains, “You have to understand, there was no build up to my departure, no big Oprah [Winfrey]- or Larry King-style send off. I was literally there one day and gone the next.”
The lesson, he now says, was that it was time to try something new. Smiley’s definition of “failing up” isn’t simply to dig in and hang on; it’s to see when change is necessary. “What looks like a dead end can sometimes be a finish line,” he says. “People were saying, ‘Oh, too bad. Tavis is through,’ but the firing showed me that I’d done all I was meant to do at BET. Sometimes rejection is redirection. The lesson might be that it’s time to go another route and try something different.
“You know that old phrase, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’?” he asks. “I don’t believe that. Sometimes you have to change a mediocre situation in order to make it better. If your objectives aren’t being met or you’re being pushed out of a role, don’t just say, ‘I blew it,’ or ‘They don’t like me.’ Use it as a chance to step back and reexamine those objectives. We’re all creatures of habit, and if we weren’t occasionally forced out of our comfort zones – which is what failure does – we’d never reach our full potential.”
You’re Not the Boss of Me
The BET firing showed Smiley that he never wanted to be at the mercy of another boss, and it was the start of a whole new phase of his career. “That was the moment I became an entrepreneur,” he says, “because I knew then I wanted to control my own destiny. I said at that time that I’d never go back on television until I owned the show. It took three years to put the deal together, but now PBS distributes a show that I completely own myself.”
Smiley has taken his quest for autonomy to the point of owning his own speaking bureau, radio show, publishing company, and even the office building that houses his empire. Would he ever have taken such a huge step without being fired?
“Probably not,” he admits. “I would challenge you to find any successful entrepreneur who hasn’t encountered, not one or two, but many ‘fail up’ moments. It’s a prerequisite for greatness. In the book, I point to numerous examples of people who turned adversity into advantage only after their initial plans fell through.”
Of course, failure is not always quite as obvious as being fired from a national television show. What about people who battle a more private and internal sense of failure?
“Some of us are successful in the eyes of the world but still don’t feel successful inside,” says Smiley. “I liken it to being on a treadmill. I’ve completed three marathons, so I know what it’s like to hit the streets and run. Because when you’re on the street, you’re covering ground, but you can run the same distance on a treadmill and not go anywhere. Constant movement is not the same as progress, and there’s no way to survive the current business environment by standing still. When you feel like you’re working hard but not really getting anywhere – on the business equivalent of a treadmill – you need to stop, step back, and really examine that. If you’re honest, you can figure out the problem. It might not require a huge change, just a small adjustment, but feelings of failure can be almost as instructive as failure itself.
“The bottom line is that failure makes us dive deeper and try things we wouldn’t have tried otherwise,” Smiley says. “The stories in Fail Up have a common theme, which goes back to the words of the playwright Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’”
– Kim Wright Wiley
/// Upcoming Webinar