Archive for November 27, 2009

The difference between success and failure is small

One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that the difference between success and failure is small. The annals of history are paved with those who almost made it, almost succeeded, got so close to their goals but failed. What’s often not told are the stories of those who almost gave up, didn’t think they could go on anymore but somehow managed to find the courage or stamina to get the job done.

If Napoleon had done a better job of pursuing the retreating Prussians, he might have prevented them from reaching the Duke of Wellington and won the battle of Waterloo. Similarly, If we didn’t build a nuclear weapon before Hitler; maybe we might have had a cold war involving the third Reich and the free world up to this day. Maybe Hannibal might have been able to win the war against the Romans if he had more support from his political leaders.

But we don’t have to stay in war to find examples. Look at the world of sports. Many professional games in the NBA are decided by 2 or 3 points, including championships. The same can be said of other sports such as American football. This year professional tennis player Andy Roddick almost beat Roger Federer playing 5 sets with the tie-break going to 16 games in the final of Wimbledon. Roddick had a couple of break points and almost won (you can see a summary of the game below).


This concept is especially true  in the arena of business. Many businesses would have made it if they only had just a bit more capital or they had waited a couple of years for the market to be ready for their products. Similarly, many businesses owners will tell you that they came very close to going out of business or losing a significant portion of their business. For government contractors like my company, SciMetrika, the difference between feast (winning a large contract) and famine (losing to a competitor on a large contract) boils down in many instances to only a couple of points in the scoring of the proposal. Imagine this, contracts worth several millions of dollars decided by only a few points between the winner and the top competitors!

I know personally a thing or two about being close to failing. I came very close to not getting a bachelor’s degree. At one point, I was broke and forced to abandoned my undergraduate studies to go to work. Fortunately, I went back to school, but it wasn’t easy. The first of studying for my graduate degree was disastrous. Because my wife was pregnant, I had to work full-time while pursuing my studies on a full-time basis. Part time study wasn’t an option for the program. As for my doctorate in biostatistics, there were many things that could have forced me to give up. In fact, in a class I received a P** (P for Passing; basically a B with a double minus). A failure in that class would have been the kiss of death.
So, what difference does it make? What can one do if there is little difference between success and failure? Here are a few thoughts on how and why this should motivate us:

1. Always pursue excellence:  One flaw or deflect may cause failure, but don’t give up before you leave the starting line
2. Seek to continuously improve:  We should not count on the skills we have now to be sufficient later
3. Bring intensity to the goals we are pursuing
4. Pay attention to the details; we never know what can make a difference
5. We can’t affort to be complacent, especially with early successs
6. Sometimes, there is only one chance or a small window of opportunity. That chance might not come back.
7. Persevere and never give up

November 27, 2009 at 2:27 am 2 comments

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November 2009