Failure and Accountability

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I recently wrote a story about how wrestling taught me the invaluable lesson of dealing with failure. A relative to failure is accountability, and I want to talk a little bit about how accountability and failure go hand-in-hand with one another both within my life and in other real-world examples.


When I quit the wrestling team, it took me a very long time to gain any sense of accountability for the decision. I made all sorts of excuses for myself and why it was OK. The most common excuse I made was that I was a walk-on, and so I never had a real commitment to anyone else to be doing something I did not want to do. Another excuse was that I had academic and extracurricular interests that were being put to the wayside as a result of the immense time commitment. Or that I just started the sport too late and that the amount of effort it was going to take to even be competitive simply outweighed how much I wanted it.


It’s not that any of the above are bad reasons, necessarily, or that the decision was the wrong one. It’s that they all ignored my own role in the events. Plain and simple, I wasn’t tough enough to weather the storm during that time. That’s a difficult thing to admit to yourself. When the easy thing to do is to walk away and blame others, the hardest thing to do is to keep going and attribute it to yourself. Where accountability intersects between those two outcomes is the acknowledgement that only you are responsible for what you do and what outcomes you obtain. And yes, even when external factors are weighing you down, you are always in control and capable of overcoming them – it just comes down to how badly you want to.


Take my coach for example. He inherited quite possibly the worst team in Division 1. The level of commitment from members of the team was poor. We got blown out in all of our matches. He could have made excuses for himself – “there is not a commitment to recruiting” or “the talent level is not good enough” or “it’s too hard to get good wrestlers into Princeton.” But he knew what he was getting into when he took the job (although honestly, I bet he was still surprised). A decade later, the program is among the best in the country. That did not happen by mistake. That happens by accountability in bad times, when you do not look good but people trust you for your leadership and ownership, which in turn allows you to reap all of the rewards of success (e.g., people now know that success did not happen by mistake).


I remember one occasion which I wish I could take back. After a difficult practice, the coach told me I was not working hard enough. I was at my wit’s end at this point and really felt like I was going above and beyond, so I stormed out of the room. I couldn’t believe that in spite of my best efforts, it wasn’t enough. I just wasn’t very good, I thought. The coach came to the locker room to find me and pulled me aside. He told me he wanted me to stick with it – surely he knew I was at a breaking point. But the reality of his message did not sink in for me until years later, because in that moment I did not want to hold myself accountable to what he was saying.


This was the reality: the bar I had set for myself was very low. I wanted to be able to say that I was competent by the end of my career. That’s not necessarily a low bar for the Average Joe who has never signed up for wrestling practice, but it was a low enough bar that it hurt me. One of the best concepts I utilize in my life today is Visualization – visualizing what I want all the time. The net-net is that I often end up pushing myself harder as a result of not being where I want to be at the right time. In college, I was expecting to lose every single time I set foot on the mat. I was not visualizing being a national champion, and naturally, my results suffered. But because I was not visualizing the highest level of success, my standard for what was an “above and beyond” effort was different than the athlete who actually had set that higher bar. This is the message my coach was trying to get me to understand. Back then, I did not want to hear it.


Accountability is important in our daily lives. Last spring, Toronto Sun reporter Steve Simmons chastised former Boston Bruin Marc Savard for not responding to media requests after his career ended, prior to Savard becoming a fellow media member himself years later. Marc Savard’s career had ended violently with several concussions, which put him through a tumultuous time in his life where he dealt with severe depression. He pretty much disappeared for a long time. Needless to say, Savard did not respond to Simmons’s calls because of the very real mental health issues he was dealing with at the time.


Only after being torn through the mud by the social media mob did Simmons work up the energy to issue an apology. And while he did apologize, he made sure to do so only after saying: “I personally don’t like the way he ignored the emails from a Hall of Fame writer from the Boston Globe over the years, or the calls from the late Steve Harris from the Boston Herald, or other attempts to talk to him — USA Today, Globe and Mail, and many others tried — after his career ended early with the Boston Bruins when other media members would see him in rinks while coaching minor hockey and he would barely say hello. That’s my opinion.” Simmons also went on to lament his own mental health issues, and putting the cherry on top by saying, “For not welcoming new media members who have treated the industry disrespectfully, I do not apologize.”


Folks, those are not the words of someone who holds themselves accountable. Frankly, I do not know why Simmons apologized to begin with. Certainly it must have been to appease the angry crowds lining up on social media, because continuing to point out what someone else has done wrong while issuing an apology to said person is not really an apology at all. A more accountable apology would have read like this:


“I thought Mr. Savard was disrespectful towards the media based on these various interactions, but I now understand that he was dealing with a mental health issue, of which I was completely unaware. Of course, knowing what I know today, I feel terribly to have cast judgment upon him so rashly.”


Why is that so hard?


Well, I imagine it’s because being accountable sometimes is a recognition of failure in some regard. No one likes being told they did something bad. But I liken lack of accountability to a Failure with a capital F: not only did you mess up, but you refused to understand your part in it, so surely you will never fix the mistake properly. And that’s precisely the thing – being accountable is not failure, it is the opportunity to correct failure and to show others that you can correct failure. A valuable lesson I learned and one Mr. Simmons should learn as well.


As I write this, the owner of the San Francisco Giants has just been caught on videotape in a physical altercation with his wife. While he says that he is embarrassed about the incident, he claims that his wife fell off her chair, even though anyone who watches the video can see that he is at least partially to blame for her falling on the ground. How do we think this is going to go?


What I will say, however, is that we unfortunately live in a time where every one of us seems to have an opinion on the accountability of others. Whether it was a tweet from ten years ago, an offhand joke at the bar, or a viral video we see on the internet – we are all pretty quick to rush to judgment and become the arbiters of justice on who needs to be held accountable and to what degree. What seems to be lost in all of this is the willingness of the apparent wrongdoer to step forward and own up to whatever they did in the interest of moving forward. I prefer to live in a world where we care more about ownership and less on expecting human beings to not be human. Because the reality is, we are all humans, and therefore we are all ripe to miss the mark from time to time. What separates the wheat from the chaff is how we own up to it.

So what is the lesson here?

It’s simple: there is no failure until there is no accountability. The accountable person owns their mistakes and corrects them. The unaccountable person blames others for their misfortunes and continues to fail. The accountable person is admired for being brave, the unaccountable person is made fun of behind his or her back for being feeble-minded. When we fail, it is easy to see how being accountable is the path of least resistance then towards reaching the sunlight.


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