After fifteen months in the womb, calves are born headfirst and drop six feet to the ground from the standing mom. Boom! Welcome to Earth.…It is usually up on its own spindly legs within an hour, a vital defense against a hungry enemy.
—Lynn Sherr, Journalist, 1997
Giraffes are vulnerable at birth. The event is a rude awakening, a survival test, and a rough-and-tumble introduction onto the plains of Africa. The calf drops from its mother’s pouch, building speed that severs the umbilical cord. As the calf flails on the ground, a powerful image hovers above, providing a moment of calm when the newborn has a decision to make: Do I lie still or rise to join my mother standing before me?
Technology, however, not only sparks rises but also triggers falls.
In 1912 Lillian Gish showcased her first-rate acting talent in silent films. But soon a shift in technology radically changed her profession. Gish responded (nearly one hundred years ago) in a way we must embrace today. She accepted change even though it would cause stress and eliminate the silent acting field in which she was recognized as a major star through films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Orphans of the Storm (1921).
Most of Gish’s fellow actors bluntly rejected the transition from silent film to sound, but she had a conviction to learn new skills in a field that was experiencing a West Coast earthquake. She transferred her talents to the stage in the play Hamlet (1936) and talkies such as Duel in the Sun (1946), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The result of rising after a career fall was that Gish not only kept her job but also contributed to her field for more than half of century. In 1971 she earned a special Academy Award for “superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.” Gish was that rare person who not only accepted but also embraced change, living to the age of ninety-nine and dying in her sleep of natural causes.
Change ain’t easy—most of us spend much of our lives fighting these shifts that arrive like tides on the beach. Perhaps a giraffe-inspired approach is best, one in which we accept falls as Lillian Gish did by knowing they often stimulate growth if we elect to stand and join a new herd while continuing to learn from an industry collapse, a wise response in our new century of shifts that occur through technology.
Studies reveal that failure is increasingly common today due to the speed of change triggered by twenty-first-century technology. The average time a company spends in the S&P 500 Index has dropped from seventy-five years in 1937 to approximately fifteen years today. Yet failure also can be a form of creativity. If a company goes bankrupt in Silicon Valley, it is often a sign of courage. Thomas Edison engaged in nine thousand experiments before producing the successful new technology called the light bulb, which we still use today. Today many companies have failure parties or an annual prize for the best failed idea. During reviews at P&G, employees discuss successes and failures as though they’re equal.
The irony is that success can be as difficult as failure to rise from and move forward after. Falls and rises are more intertwined than most people understand.
Because most companies use success as emotional stimulation rather than as a learning technique—a twenty-first-century mistake. Success often breeds a cozy environment where the ego concludes, I know it all. Success usually doesn’t trigger reflection, and what’s most dangerous is that success, like failure, can lead to a static, nonlearning environment for organizations and employees.
Apple is a recent example of how smart companies link failure and success. Like failure, success must bring authentic reflection and change, not simply repetition, because in the twenty-first century, that’s not enough to stay current. When a company strongly reflects on success, falls often are reduced and guide the company to opportunities for extended growth.
In the 1990s Apple failed with the Newton tablet, yet the company learned from the Newton fall and continued to focus on the long-term goal of creating a portable tablet. In the short term, though, Apple took a smaller risk by creating the iPhone in 2007, which was—and continues to be—wildly successful.
Apple continued to learn from both the Newton failure and the iPhone success, treating them as equal, relevant, and vital research to gather information for the company to reflect upon before taking a smarter risk—creating the iPad, another substantial victory that continues today. The result of treating both success and failure, much as a doctor treats disease, helped Apple jump up to number one, overtaking Google as the world’s most valuable brand; in August 2012 Forbes cited Apple as being the most valuable company in history.