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10 Reasons We Fail According to John C. Maxwell

Many people possess blind spots when it comes to knowing about themselves. Sometimes the blind spots apply to strengths, but more often people fail to see their weaknesses. And that causes trouble. If you don’t know you have a problem, then you can’t work to fix it.

I’d like to acquaint you with what I have observed to be the top ten reasons people fail. As you read, please be open-minded, and try to see yourself and your shortcomings in the following descriptions. Become aware of recurring issues in your life. As you read the following reasons people fail, you may find your Achilles’ heel. By the way, the Achilles of ancient Greek myth was a warrior who was totally indestructible—except in one tiny spot on his heel. And that one flaw allowed his complete destruction. That’s the way flaws work. So don’t mentally minimize the amount of damage that a weakness may create.

  1. Poor People Skills

By far the greatest single obstacle to success that I see in others is a poor understanding of people. A while back the Wall Street Journal printed an article on the reasons that executives fail. At the top of the list was a person’s inability to effectively relate to others.

I was talking to some people a couple of days ago, and they were complaining about not winning a business contract that they had bid on. “It wasn’t fair,” one person told me. “All the people involved knew each other, and we didn’t have a chance. It’s all politics.” But what he went on to describe wasn’t politics. It was relationships.

Authors Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb indicate that people who fail on the job commonly cite “office politics” as the reason for their failures, but the reality is that what they call politics is often nothing more than regular interaction with other people. Hyatt and Gottlieb assert,

Most careers involve other people. You can have great academic intelligence and still lack social intelligence—the ability to be a good listener, to be sensitive toward others, to give and take criticism well.

If people don’t like you, they may help you fail . . . On the other hand, you can get away with serious mistakes if you are socially intelligent . . . A mistake may actually further [your] career if the boss thinks [you] handled the situation in a mature and responsible way.

How are you when it comes to working with people? Are you genuine and authentic, or do you continually put up a front? Do you listen carefully to others, or do you do most of the talking? Do you expect everyone else to conform to your wishes, your schedule, and your agenda, or do you look for ways to meet people on their terms? If you haven’t learned how to get along with people, you will always be fighting a battle to succeed. However, making people skills a strength will take you farther than any other skill you develop. People like to do business with people they like. Or to put it the way President Theodore Roosevelt did: “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”

  1. A Negative Attitude

I saw a cartoon that depicted a man getting his palm read by a fortuneteller. As she studied the man’s palm, she said, “You will be sad, miserable, and poor until you’re 30.”

“Gee,” the man replied hopefully, “what happens when I’m 30?”

The fortune-teller replied, “Then you’ll get used to it.”

Your reaction to the circumstances of your life has everything to do with your well-being and your success. W. Clement Stone tells a story about a young bride who traveled with her husband to the California desert during World War II.

Because she had grown up in the East, the desert seemed remote and desolate to her. Where they lived didn’t make it any easier. The only housing they could find was a shack near a village of Native Americans, none of whom spoke English. She spent a lot of time there alone, waiting out the sweltering heat each day.

When her husband was gone for a long period, she wrote her mother to say she was returning home. A few days later, she received this reply:

Two men looked from prison bars, One saw mud, the other stars.

Those words helped the young woman to see things more clearly. Maybe she couldn’t improve her circumstances, but she could improve herself. She made friends with her Native American neighbors, she began working with them on weaving and pottery, and she took time to explore the desert and discover its natural beauty. All of a sudden, she was living in a new world—and the only thing that had changed was her attitude.

If your circumstances constantly get you down, then maybe it’s time for a change—not in your situation, but in your attitude. If you can learn to make the best of any situation, you can remove a formidable obstacle that stands between you and your dreams.

  1. A Bad Fit

Though we should always first examine our attitudes when we don’t enjoy our circumstances, sometimes a change in situation is also in order. Sometimes a case of mismatched abilities, interests, personality, or values can be a major contributor to chronic failure.

A good example can be seen in the life of film producer David Brown. He started out in corporate America and was fired from three different jobs before he realized that corporate life was not for him. After working his way up in Hollywood and becoming the number two man at Twentieth Century Fox, he was fired after recommending a film that turned out to be a flop. Then he became an editorial vice president at the New American Library, but he was fired when he clashed with a coworker. Later he was rehired by Twentieth Century Fox, but six years later was fired again, along with Fox’s president, Richard Zanuck.

Brown examined his working behavior and determined that his outspoken, risk-oriented ways didn’t fit well in the settings where he had been working. He was too much of an entrepreneur to work in jobs with confining expectations. Although he had failed as a corporate executive, he was extremely successful when he pursued his own ideas with his former boss, Zanuck. He and Zanuck went on to produce many popular films, including the huge box office hit Jaws.

Few things in life are more frustrating than being stuck in a profession or organization that doesn’t suit you. It’s like always having to wear shoes that are two sizes too large or too small. Are you a salesperson stuck in an accountant’s job? Are you a corporate executive who would rather be home raising your children? Are you an engineer who would rather be pastoring a church? Are you an entrepreneur working for an organization whose idea of progress is moving backward slowly? Evaluate yourself and your situation. If there is a poor fit, think about making a change.

  1. Lack of Focus

Bad things happen when a person doesn’t focus. Let me illustrate with a story. One day a businessman visited a small-town florist shop to order flowers for a friend who was opening a new business. The floral shop owner was unusually busy and was scrambling to fill orders while she took the businessman’s information.

Later that day, the man arrived at his friend’s grand opening and saw a big floral wreath with his name on it that said, “With Deepest Sympathy During This Time of Sorrow.”

The businessman was irate. He called the florist to complain and asked, “What in the world happened? Do you have any idea how stupid you made me look?”

“I’m so sorry,” the shop owner said, “I was a little scrambled when you came by. But your situation wasn’t nearly as bad as it was at the funeral home. That card said, ‘Best Wishes in Your New Location.’”

Anybody can make an honest mistake when things are hectic. But people lacking focus have trouble not because they’re too busy, but because their priorities are out of whack. And that wastes their time and resources. If you go from task to task to task without making any progress, or you can’t seem to reach a goal no matter how much effort you give it, examine your focus. No one can move forward without it.

  1. A Weak Commitment

For a long time, it seemed that apathy was chic. But effort and commitment seem to be coming back into style. And that’s good because without commitment, you cannot accomplish anything of value. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe addressed the importance of commitment: “Until one is committed, there is hesitance, the chance to draw back, and always ineffectiveness . . . The moment one definitely commits oneself . . . a whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way.”

The last time you failed, did you stop trying because you failed, or did you fail because you stopped trying? What was your level of commitment? Did you give the task everything you had? Did you go the extra mile? Did you put enough of yourself on the line to guarantee that you would give your very best?

If you’re committed, a failure doesn’t mean that you’ll never succeed. It just means you will take longer. Commitment makes you capable of failing forward until you reach your goals.

  1. An Unwillingness to Change

Perhaps the most relentless enemy of achievement, personal growth, and success is inflexibility. Some people seem to be so in love with the past that they can’t deal with the present. Not long ago, a friend sent me “The Top Ten Strategies for Dealing with a Dead Horse.” I thought the list was hilarious:

  1. Buy a stronger whip.
  2. Change riders.
  3. Appoint a committee to study the horse.
  4. Appoint a team to revive the horse.
  5. Send out a memo declaring the horse isn’t really dead.
  6. Hire an expensive consultant to find “the real problem.”
  7. Harness several dead horses together for increased speed and efficiency.
  8. Rewrite the standard definition of live horse.
  9. Declare the horse to be better, faster, and cheaper when dead.
  10. Promote the dead horse to a supervisory position.

I bet you’ve seen just about every one of these “solutions” enacted in your place of work. But there’s really only one effective way to deal with that problem: When your horse is dead, for goodness’ sake, dismount.

One Calvin and Hobbes comic strip portrayed the way that too many of us perceive change. Calvin and his stuffed-tiger friend were speeding down a hill in the boy’s wagon. Calvin yelled back to Hobbes, “I thrive on change.”

Surprised, Hobbes remarked, “You? You threw a fit this morning because your mom put less jelly on your toast than yesterday.”

Calvin faced Hobbes and explained, “I thrive on making other people change.”

You don’t have to love change to be successful, but you need to be willing to accept it. Change is a catalyst for personal growth. It gets you out of a rut, it gives you a fresh start, and it affords you an opportunity to reevaluate your direction. If you resist change, you’re really resisting success. Learn flexibility, or learn to like living with your failures.

  1. A Shortcut Mind-Set

A common obstacle to success is the desire to cut corners and take the short road to success. But shortcuts never pay off in the long run. As Napoleon said, victory belongs to the most persevering.

Most people tend to underestimate the time it takes to achieve something of value, but to be successful, you have to be willing to pay your dues. James Watt spent twenty years laboring to perfect his steam engine. William Harvey labored night and day for eight years to prove how blood circulated in the human body. And it took another twenty-five years for the medical profession to acknowledge he was right.

Cutting corners is really a sign of impatience and poor self-discipline.

But if you are willing to follow through, you can achieve a breakthrough. That’s why Albert Gray says, “The common denominator of success lies in forming the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”

If you continually give in to your moods or impulses, then you need to change your approach to doing things. The best method is to set standards for yourself that require accountability. Suffering a consequence for not following through helps you stay on track. Once you have your new standards in place, work according to them, not your moods. That will get you going in the right direction.

Self-discipline is a quality that is won through practice. Psychologist Joseph Mancusi noted, “Truly successful people have learned to do what does not come naturally. Real success lies in experiencing fear or aversion and acting in spite of it.”

  1. Relying on Talent Alone

Talent is overrated. Not because it doesn’t have value, but because talent alone isn’t enough to take a person through the multiple failures that life brings. Adding a strong work ethic to talent is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It’s explosive!

The great artists understand this, though some nonartists mistakenly believe that talent alone carries them through. David Bayles and Ted Orland explain,

Even at best, talent remains a constant, and those who rely upon that gift alone, without developing further, peak quickly and soon fade to obscurity. Examples of genius only accentuate that truth. Newspapers love to print stories about five-year-old musical prodigies giving solo recitals, but you rarely read about one going on to become a Mozart. The point here is that whatever his initial gift, Mozart was also an artist who learned to work on his work, and thereby improved. In that respect he shares common ground with the rest of us.

The greater your talent, the more likely you are to lean heavily on it and skip the hard day-to-day work of improving it. If you possess this negative tendency, put yourself on a growth plan so that you can make the most of your God-given talent.

  1. A Response to Poor Information

Successful executives have in common the ability to make weighty decisions based on limited amounts of information. But they also have in common the ability to gather reliable information to use as they evaluate issues. General Douglas MacArthur knew this. He asserted, “Expect only 5 percent of an intelligence report to be accurate. The trick of a good commander is to isolate the 5 percent.”

As the pace of life and business increases, the difficulty of being able to collect and evaluate information will increase. In fact, Bill Gates’s best-selling book Business @ the Speed of Thought was written specifically to address this issue.

An example of what can go wrong when decisions are made on the basis of poor information is evident in the purchase of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. Volkswagen and BMW battled each other to purchase Rolls-Royce from Vickers PLC. And Volkswagen won the battle, paying $780 million for the luxury auto-making company. But after the purchase was finalized, the buyers made a shocking discovery. Volkswagen owned the company, but not the rights to the name Rolls-Royce, which is synonymous with luxury cars around the world. The license for the name, it turned out, belonged to another company: Rolls-Royce PLC, an aerospace company. Even worse, Rolls-Royce PLC had ties to BMW. Guess who received permission to use the name? BMW—not Volkswagen. And it all happened because of poor information gathering.

  1. No Goals

The last major cause of failure is an absence of goals. Don Marquis perceives that “ours is a world where people don’t know what they want and are willing to go through hell to get it.”

Joe L. Griffith believes, “A goal is nothing more than a dream with a time limit.” Many people don’t have goals because they haven’t allowed themselves to dream. As a result, they don’t possess a desire.

If that describes you, then you must look deep within yourself and try to determine why you’re on this planet. Once you’ve discovered that, you’ll know what to shoot for. (I’ll talk more about this in the next chapter.) If you can discover the weakness that weakens you, then you can start doing something about it. And that can change your life. I’ve seen that happen again and again in people who desire success. Let me tell you about one of them.

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John C. Maxwell

John C. Maxwell is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker who has sold more than 33 million books in fifty languages. He has been identified as the #1 leader in business and the most influential leadership expert in the world.

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