Thursday, September 18, 2014

Fear of failure leads to failure.

Lane Kiffin is now perhaps the most famous and infamous offensive coordinator in college football.  After being the National Football League's youngest head coach with the Oakland Raiders, he was head coach at the University of Tennessee for one year before leaving suddenly to become head coach at the University of Southern California.  After both success and tumult at USC, he was fired unceremoniously in mid-season last year.

"The only wisdom we can hope to obtain is the wisdom of humility.  Humility is endless."  So said T.S. Eliot, and so we all must sometimes learn the hard way.  
Nick Saban hired Kiffin in January to be his key assistant at the University of Alabama, so on the last three Saturdays I have seen the two coaches pacing the sidelines together.  As exciting as it was to be a young head coach, Kiffin was not ready for the head coaching job for any of the three teams that hired him.

Rob Asghar, a writer and USC alumnus, has analyzed Kiffin's failures as a coach and notes that they have occurred when the normally brash guy took counsel of his fears.  In "Cautionary Lessons from Lane Kiffin: How Fear of Failure Leads to Failure", Asghar says that Kiffin succeeds when he allows his creative assistants and talented players go full-speed ahead and play their best; Kiffin fails whenever he becomes cautious, second-guesses himself, and reins in his horses.  Moreover, when he is fearful, his body language shows it.

I have watched this psychology at work my entire life.  When I was in college, Ralph Sampson of the University of Virginia was the finest basketball player in the land, but his teams were dramatically eliminated each year in the NCAA tournament.  Oddly enough, UVA made the Final Four the year after Sampson graduated, and I remember distinctly one basketball commentator saying that the team in his absence was "playing to win" rather than "playing not to lose".  In 2004, the Boston Red Sox traded the star of the franchise, Nomar Garciaparra, to the Chicago Cubs, beat the Yankees in dramatic fashion for the AL pennant, and swept the Cardinals for their first World Series victory since 1918.  As great as Garciaparra was, the team played better without him.

At the beginning of my legal career, I was an associate in firms with large institutional clients.  Because the clients were the firm's before I arrived, the first (unwritten) orders to a new associate are those given to Forrest Gump by Lt. Dan: "Keep your feet dry, and don't do anything stupid!"  Like Forrest, I tried to obey but had to fight the habit of "playing not to lose."  Now I am captain of my own team and get up each day, meet new people, and develop relationships.  It is refreshingly fun, though it takes more effort.  Carpe diem!

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