We live in a world in which one need not travel far to get advice on just about anything. In fact, Google suggests more than 809,000,000 web sites as sources for advice. Over 11,000 new business books are published each year. So, surely in the last 20 years we have created a much smarter business world with higher chances of success, right?
Not exactly. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shares a more interesting picture. The graph below indicates that the rate of business failures has remained unchanged over the last 17 years. So what gives?
Lee Thayer, thought leader, author and coach to CEOs for nearly 50 years, went so far as to write a book entitled, How Executives Fail: 25 Surefire Recipes for Sabotaging Your Career. With more business failures than successes in the world, Lee posits that it must be the aim of business leaders to fail, so he created a field guide to help them fail faster and more efficiently.
One of Lee’s 25 recipes for failure is, “How to achieve mediocrity.” One doesn’t often think of mediocrity as something that is achieved, but as the old adage reminds us, “the pursuit of mediocrity is always successful.”
I believe that there are two reasons why mediocrity is so prevalent in our society. First is that many of us choose to stay on the path we are on – whatever that path may be. Famed Kiwi Sir Edmund Hilary was the first to climb Mt. Everest in 1953. What was the name of the second, or the 10th person? How about the 3,753rd? In 1990, 18% of all climbers reached the summit of Everest, and in 2012, that figure was 56%. If reaching the summit of Mt. Everest can become a routine achievement, then surely the path I am currently on will ultimately become mediocre, at best.
In my experience, staying on any path for too long eventually leads to mediocrity. We should always be prepared to get off the path that we’re on and blaze new trails that break from the path toward mediocrity.
Secondly, we like to believe that the recipe for success is out there. We tend to apply the learnings of others to ever-changing circumstances until, as Lee notes with tongue in cheek, we successfully accomplish failure. Using the experiences of others as a path to our own success involves some pretty wild assumptions. We assume that the people we are learning from had relevant success to begin with. Then we assume that they have an accurate understanding of that success. And finally, we assume that the conditions of their success are applicable to us and the problems we face.
Meanwhile, many people and organizations do thrive, of course; across different times, different markets and different cultures. I do not believe these people and organizations are merely lucky. These are the people who fearlessly and relentlessly innovate and solve problems. They have access to the same information as you and I, but they nearly always blaze their own trail.
This is one reason why I am so lucky to be surrounded by colleagues and customers who are committed to discovery. This open mindset enables continual learning and a willingness to change course, to evolve. The right solution—the best solution—is out there; discovering it just might need the right mix of openness and commitment.