Relationships are not only important in business, they’re important in life. Today, some of my closest friends and most cherished relationships were forged in college—on the football field. Over 25 years after meeting, a group of us still get together at least once a year to keep these important relationships current and strong. Our meet-up spot? Vegas- on the first weekend of March Madness, every year.
During nearly each of these trips, some version of the story where I “chose” to take a D- grade in a Social Psych class because I decided to forgo the optional final that could have significantly improved the grade, comes up. Admittedly, it’s pretty difficult to get a C- or below at Williams College, but I managed.
Ultimately, my decision to take the lesser grade came from an unwillingness to prepare. I paid the consequence for that decision later, when I didn’t get a job at an investment bank—primarily due to my “mediocre” GPA.
With half a lifetime to reflect on that decision, and many others like it, I keep coming back to Steve Jobs’s thoughts on dot connecting:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach…has made all the difference in my life.”
To me, it all comes down to this: decision-making and mistake-making.
My friends are all successful in their chosen professions, and, once a year, they critique me on that D- grade. But, I argue that it was the right decision for me at the time, and that it’s symbolic of the choices I make now, which tend to go against the grain. Conventional wisdom when it comes to college tells us we MUST get the A at all costs. Get the A and you will have opportunities. Never fail and you will never fail. But to get the A, you can’t make any mistakes. And, I’d argue, mistakes teach us more than preparing for any final ever could.
In life, it’s not a question of if you will fail, but when and how frequently you fail. And the more you fail, the more opportunity you have to LEARN and turn each failure into a win. I’ve been fortunate enough to build a successful business that employs over 500 people, all of whom are talented and smart. Two traits common among our top performers are decisiveness and fearlessness. They’re decisive and fearless when it comes to their willingness to make mistakes. They OWN their mistakes, which means they’re quick to recover and move on to the next challenge. The faster they recover, the more they learn, and the better they perform.
Don’t get me wrong: choosing to party instead of prepare for any test was a terrible decision to make back in college. But it was my decision nonetheless. I made it, and I suffered the consequences—but that’s also how I learned. Today, I won’t go into anything without proper and thorough preparation—whether it’s a staff meeting, a customer presentation, or a board meeting. I come prepared, educated on the topic, and ready to debate.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and now I get to watch my own son accomplish something special: graduate college, and with a far better grade point average than mine I might add. Becoming a father, way back when, solidified a lot of the lessons I had slowly been learning—and made me learn them faster. Prepare and be successful, or the consequences would impact more than just me this time.
There are an endless stream of dots, as Jobs describes, in all of our lives. If you want to be successful, DECIDE to be successful. The world is not going to change for you. Trust me, it’s much easier to change yourself. So, make mistakes. Make a lot of mistakes. Because the more mistakes you make, the more lessons you will learn. As humans, we are resilient. You’ll come out on the other side—even during tough times and through mistakes you don’t think you’ll be able to overcome. Embrace your failures. OWN them. That’s called experience.
Mistakes and decisions matter. Don’t be afraid to make both.