Why Flaming Out Could Be Your Big Career Move
When I started researching my book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, I thought I’d have trouble finding high achievers who struggled before hitting the big time.
Wrong. One of the surprising insights I gained from writing this book is that most successful people have struggled along the way. Whether your favorite role model is a CEO, an entrepreneur, a sports star or an entertainer, odds are he or she failed at something or endured some unforeseen hardship on the way to the top.
These are more than simple comeback stories. Quite often, a setback is the very thing that makes future success possible, because it represents a unique chance to learn something we’re unlikely to confront any other way. Nobody likes to fail, but when we do, it gives us the chance to identify our weaknesses and fix what’s wrong. The vital thing is paying attention and learning from it, instead of wallowing in regret or blaming others.
Jack Bogle, founder of the Vanguard mutual fund company, would probably have been a comfortable financial-industry executive few people remember, except that he got fired in a boardroom coup midway through his career. It was a miserable comedown, but it helped Bogle realize he had been playing it safe and not pursuing the vision he had laid out for himself 20 years before. It took several years to turn that vision into reality—and a lot of fighting spirit generated by the boardroom defeat—but Vanguard became an industry pioneer, and Bogle a legend among investors.
Tim Westergren burned out as a professional musician and struggled in his next profession, composing film scores. But he didn’t just move on to a third career. Instead, he captured insights from his setbacks, which led to the idea for Pandora Internet radio—which gives airplay to bands just like the one Westergren couldn’t make a living in. Pandora has changed the way people listen to music, and made Westergren, its founder, a multimillionaire.
Jon Luther was out of a job and broke, with two kids headed for college, after he left a safe corporate job for a restaurant startup that went bust before serving a single meal. The flameout helped Luther identify several shortcomings in his own skill set, which he set about to rectify through classroom instruction, when he could afford it, and informal tutorials from friends. That began a long comeback which earned Luther a reputation as a turnaround artist—first, at the Popeye’s fried chicken chain, then at Dunkin’ Donuts. When Dunkin’ went public in 2011, Luther reaped a windfall of more than $40 million.
We all love such tales of triumph, but what I learned from studying Rebounders is that these are not accidental or random recoveries. Most people don’t bounce back just because they’re optimistic or lucky, or because they deserve to. There are actually several qualities that Rebounders have that enable them to bounce back. The good news is, they’re qualities most people can develop and improve. Just about anybody can become a Rebounder.
There’s no exact formula for Rebounding, but here are a few of the most important Rebounding traits I identified. First, Rebounders don’t blame other people when something goes wrong, even if they legitimately could. There’s nothing to learn from faulting others. Instead, Rebounders have a knack for dispassionately deconstructing what went wrong, like investigators trying to understand why a plane crashed or a house burned down. They urgently want to know what mistakes they made, or what weaknesses they have, so they can make improvements and do better on the next try.
There’s a familiar saying in business: Failure is not an option. That’s for amateurs. Anybody who’s trying to accomplish something difficult knows that failure is always an option. What sets Rebounders apart is they’re not afraid to fail—often because they’ve failed before, and they know they’ll survive it. This makes Rebounders more comfortable taking risks, and it also allows them to fail productively—by failing quickly instead of dragging it out, extracting lessons, and applying what they learn to something else.
Finally, Rebounders aren’t as optimistic as you might think. They expect things to go wrong, often because things have gone wrong before. But this doesn’t make them dour or cynical. It makes them prepared. Rebounders do have a powerful belief in their own ability to make things better, but not because of some airy hope that things will just work out. They’re quietly confident because they’ve encountered setbacks before, and overcome them. This is the way adversity helps Rebounders become stronger, humbler and capable of great achievements. It’s a force just about all of us can harness.