If at First You Don't Succeed - Try, Try Again

If At First You Don't Succeed–Try, Try Again
by Sam Phillips

Many important lessons are learned from failures. After reading this article, the trips you take back to the drawing board will seem shorter and easier, maybe even like a trip to the beach.

We can't always be winners the first time around. It takes a while to learn, to experiment and to fine–tune. We often get frustrated; we may even entertain giving up because of the idea of failing. But, as the saying goes, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." And the tough sometimes go back to the drawing board several times before getting it right, before they reach their goals and can celebrate their successes.

Jawwad Ahmed Farid, FSA, is one of the tough ones. He says that going back to the drawing board is what true success is all about, and that failure, with the comparative isolation it can bring, is a great time to re–examine your life and to decide if this is what you want out of it.

"A total system reboot is also a good opportunity to take an inventory of your resolve, your commitment and your drive to succeed," says Farid. "Failure is a more discerning and forgiving teacher than success. Ounce for ounce, you come out leaner, meaner and wiser.

A successful entrepreneur, Farid sincerely believes that failing or falling short sometimes is essential to personal growth and attaining success.

"At heart I am a builder and making companies is what I am wired to do best," he says. "The reasoning and the logic don't matter. What matters is that given enough time, enough attempts (failures if you will), a little cash and a lot of heart, most entrepreneurs finally manage to figure it out. The ones who make it are the ones who keep trying until they do."

And by all accounts, Farid has made it. His core areas of expertise include asset/risk management, investments, contingent liabilities, product design and development, and derivative instruments, just to name a few. He blends a rare combination of information systems, international standards, business and product development skill sets side–by–side with his actuarial experience.

He is humble about his success, admitting that it is never easy getting there. Most importantly, he stresses, you never arrive by yourself–a strong support system is essential.

"Your support network is a big driver," says Farid. "The more people you can share your thoughts, failed attempts and small wins with, the easier it will be for you to remain motivated or think whatever you need to think through to remain motivated. A support network is not just someone you can talk with, but a group who you can relate to in terms of what you're doing. It helps when you know that you are not the only one who blew payroll this month–that the guy next door who is just as successful as you are is having an equally hard time, even though it may be short–lived. It is also a group that can ask the right questions, that can give you direction and at times provide the push, the shove or the hug you need to keep going."

Celebrate the small wins is another credo Farid lives by. If you wait until the big one to jump up and down for joy, you're missing out on a lot of fun.

"Small wins first," he says. "A new release with killer functionality that should drive customers mad with desire (but won't), an appreciative client call, a devoted and loyal employee, a promising qualified lead, an invoice that can now be collected, a tax refund, quality family time, a quick swim and a good workout. If you look around, you will find that every day there is a small win that you can take home with you and it will get you out of bed and bring you back to work the next day!"

Farid is quick to caution too that there are no quick and easy pathways to success. You have to experience the blood, sweat and tears, he contends, to enjoy the victory at the end.

"You have to understand that there are no shortcuts–there is no easy money and everything you dream about and finally win has a price tag," he says. "The real question you need to ask yourself is not how quickly you will succeed or even if you will succeed, but how far are you willing to go to succeed. And when you finally arrive, will it be worth it? Once you get to that point, you're well on your way." What's equally important to Farid is what he's learned from working his way through the hard times.

"From a personal standpoint, I have a stronger belief in destiny and fate and a slightly higher tolerance for failure in others. I expect less and give more.

"At a business level, I now make a conscious effort to make every dollar spent count. For instance, before my failures I used to go out and buy things on impulse; today I do an ROI (return on investment) calculation in my head before most purchases. I still make gut purchases, but not without a target date for payback on my invested capital.

"Professionally speaking, I am now more selective in terms of clients I am willing to work with and projects I am willing to take on. As with my money, I make an extra effort to make every client dollar spent count–if I can't make it count, I would rather not help spend it. I am bigger on delivering tangible, recognizable value to customers than ever before. I may not be a better listener as yet, but I have certainly made an effort to become one."

Farid also strongly stresses that it is extremely important to try very hard not to turn a missed deadline or a failed commitment into a hunt, seeking out the person or group "who is responsible for this." He believes this mindset is derived from the "success is everything" mentality. Everyone, from upper management to employees across the board in companies around the world, should ask themselves, "Is failure really that big a blemish? Is it a career destroyer?" Rarely, contends Farid.

"One key factor within this entire philosophy is expectation management," he says. "Nobody wants to look bad, but most people can live with graceful degradation (failing with style), which is what expectation management does. As long as you give your managers or clients enough space and time for them to salvage a situation, they will salvage it.

"Tell me we are going to miss a deadline two weeks ahead of the drop dead date and I will try to figure a way out; tell me two minutes before I am supposed to walk into a client meeting and I will likely blow a fuse. If you can get one thing working well, get the expectation management right, whether it is clients, bosses, employees, peers, colleagues, vendors or family, failing with style will follow.

"It takes real character and integrity to acknowledge that you have goofed up and that the buck stops at your desk. And even though at times you may feel that character and integrity are not exactly the password ambition's gatekeeper will appreciate, the two attributes are in short supply and are appreciated."

Keeping our perceptions of success and failure in check is key to one's personal and professional growth, according to Farid. He believes that both are relative terms that allow us to judge how we have fared with respect to expectations.

"In a pack of Olympic runners, the alpha males are usually not happy with winning the gold; they want a personal best, a shot at the world record or more," Farid says. "For me, even making it to the qualifier heats would be worthy of celebration. The same goes with actuarial exams. If you flunk the old life contingencies exam three times, one would naturally think you'd be happy with a passing grade of six. I have friends who were upset that they had only scored a nine.

"So, as I see it, we're not really talking about extreme ends of the spectrum. Failure and success are reflections of minor adjustments in our perception of who we are and how we rank with the rest of the world. These perceptions and expectations change with time, experience, age and the phases of our lives."

Farid is a true believer in the fact that we learn from our attempts, failures, struggles or whatever word one chooses to use to express the many times we try something before we get it right or make the decision to quit altogether. He contends if we fail along the road to success, we are smarter, stronger and better equipped to meet the next challenge that we ultimately will face.

However, that said, he does have a personal definition of failure; "not doing justice with the opportunities we are given." That, for him personally, is unacceptable.

"One of the strongest influences in my life was a high school teacher (Mrs. Khan) who taught us Urdu poetry. She used to say on the day of judgment that when you go in front of God, he will ask you, 'I gave you the ability. I could have given it to someone else. What did you do to justify it?' If you answer, 'I used it to its fullest extent,' you would be free. So, if you were given the ability to run or write or teach or add, you better be the best darn runner, writer, teacher or adder that you could possibly be.

"So, when He gave me the ability to run, I ran; to write, I wrote (click here) for information on Farid's book "Blue Screen of Death"); to teach, I taught. And I did the best possible job I could. I may have failed along the way, but I learned from each failure or 'opportunity,' and came back to the project or game or test or whatever endeavor I was involved in, and tried again until I succeeded."

Jawwad Ahmed Farid, FSA, is the chief executive and actuary at Alchemy Associates (www.alchemya.com), a fast growing boutique risk management and financial advisory firm. He can be reached at jawwad@alchemya.com.

Sam Phillips is associate editor for the Society of Actuaries. He can be reached at sphillips@soa.org.