THE BLOG

Need a Recipe for Success? Follow the Three Rs

10/27/2014 01:02 EDT | Updated 12/26/2014 05:59 EST
Rasica via Getty Images

What do Detroit, BlackBerry, Homeland and Al Gore all have in common?

The short answer is that they're all in various stages of reinventing themselves.

Two generations ago, Detroit rivalled New York as America's most important metropolis. Then, the Motor City was a fast-growing centre of industry and civic energy. Today, it's lost much of its manufacturing base, over half its population and most of its momentum. Its future prospects rest on the thin promise of repositioning an industrial city into a post-industrial hub for innovation.

Two presidential elections ago, the BlackBerry was such an indispensable device that then-candidate Barack Obama resolved to keep his even after ascending to the Oval Office. Nowadays, the company that makes it is more likely to be a parable of precipitous decline than the provider of the smartphone around which you build your life. In the coming months, we'll see if a new CEO -- and a new focus on the enterprise market -- will stop BlackBerry's bleeding, let alone return it to prominence.

Two seasons ago, Homeland was the hottest series on TV. Carrie's car wreck of a life was endearing, her on-again, off-again romance with Brody was entrancing, and the plot line involving a terrorist attack in North America was as provocative as it was compulsive viewing. This season, the show is [spoiler alert!] trying to reinvigorate itself as Carrie finds herself sane, sans Brody, and serving as drone-launching CIA Station Chief in Pakistan.

What are we to make of all of these reinvention projects? For one, even successes often require second acts. For a variety of reasons, we are experiencing turbulence and change at an unprecedented level today. Business and living models are being disrupted. Our sense of financial and even physical security is regularly shattered by macro-economic trends and geo-political events. So how does one deal with such volatility, uncertainty and anxiety?

First, steel yourself for setbacks. We're all going to experience them, so we might as well expect and then take steps to surmount them. We can start by learning from our mistakes. We'll make less of them as a result, and that way at least we won't be committing unforced errors. (Incidentally, here's how.)

Second, be resilient. Individuals and institutions alike have to deal with disaster then dust themselves off. It starts with having more robust careers, companies and even countries. So "man up"; put your "big girl pants on." Pick your pop culture reference, but we must develop the character to bounce back after hitting a bump in the road.

Resilience also involves planning; it requires us to create contingencies. This means having a Plan A, B and Z. Lose your job? Have savings squirrelled away. Fail to land that client? Line up the next one on your list. The key is to approach life wearing a belt and suspenders, as my Dad once colourfully prescribed.

Also, practice "defensive pessimism." Chris Hadfield, celebrated Canadian astronaut and interstellar "Space Oddity" cover singer, wrote about a key piece of training NASA gave him to prepare for the sheer unpredictability of space travel. They taught him to ask and answer the question: "what's going to kill me next?" Only by thinking through all of the terrible possibilities of what could go wrong in space did he gain the confidence to face those risks. So take a page from his book (literally), and face your own gloom-and-doom scenarios. Mentally prepare for the worst in order to manage possible anxieties. The specific plans may turn out to be useless, but the act of planning is priceless.

Third, be prepared to reinvent yourselves - perhaps repeatedly. Gone are the days when you started and ended your working career in the same industry, let alone the same company. So craft a second act. Upon losing the presidency in 2000, Al Gore quipped that the good news was that he now had weekends off; the bad news was that he had his weekdays off, too. However, he used that time away to engineer a post-politics career that won him a Nobel Prize and an Oscar. We may not all have Inconvenient Truths in our future, but we can achieve significant success even after suffering stinging failure.

Finally, repeat- This isn't a one-off deal. You're likely to need this model again and again. Wins can follow losses, but the opposite is true, too. Success is shockingly temporary. Just ask Blockbuster and Borders shareholders how quick reversals of fortune can come.

Like all of you, I've experienced setbacks. I've had to use the approach I described above just in the past year to overcome a personal obstacle. Nine months ago, I managed to shatter my ankle in four places playing hockey. One operation, eight weeks on crutches, 10 titanium screws and 180 days of rehab later...I'm back on the ice. I've had to reinvent my game, adding more second effort and "sandpaper" to compensate for the less speed and scoring that I can contribute to the team today. But I'm playing puck again, and life goes on. Bones heal, people bounce back, and better days eventually follow bad ones. What's more, knowing that you have successfully gotten off the floor (or the ice) once will make the prospect of getting knocked down again less daunting.

What's the recipe for success today, then? Be resilient. Reinvent. Repeat.