The Right Way to Fail Upwards - rocketMBA

The Right Way to Fail Upwards

Confession: When I started my job, I felt wildly unqualified.

And not in a haha-I’m-pretending-to-be-humble kind of way.

It’s more of an oh-shoot-what-did-I-just-get-myself-into, full-blown panic type of situation.

I’m a career switcher. Before business school, I was a diet and fitness writer for magazines and blogs. Now, I spend my days working in strategy and finance for a large media-tech company. Up until this point, financial modeling was something I had only done in the classroom…with a team of former banker bros…who really had led the quantitative portion of our group projects as per the implicit divide-and-conquer strategy. Needless to say, I felt out of my league the first few months at work.

When applying for jobs, I was well aware of the oft-quoted Hewlett Packard study that concluded that men would apply to positions where they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, whereas women will only apply if they meet 100 percent of the criteria. I was determined not to fall into this trap and submitted my resume to any and every job that interested me. In low risk, high reward situations, such as the job search, it’s only logical to give chance, well, a chance.

We often don’t like to attribute our successes to luck (but love to blame our failures on it). Instead, we prefer the more meritocratic promise of the American Dream—that talent will win out. However, if luck is normally distributed, “leaning in” at every opportunity ought to open up more doors. Or to quote the great Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

The downside of pursuing such a strategy is that when chance and a laudable hustle work out in your favor, you can find yourself in a position much like myself. Sure, I had landed a job that was beyond my wildest expectations, but that didn’t address the fact that I still didn’t have all of the “required” technical chops.

But I guess that this struggle was the lesson I was supposed to learn after all. Most of us haven’t mastered all of the skills that our jobs require from the beginning. If we had, we’d already be looking for the next opportunity. Plus, real talk: almost all new jobs have a steep learning curve. You’re adjusting to possibly a new function, a new location, a new boss. Even the most talented person needs to listen, learn, make mistakes, and recalibrate to her newfound role, responsibilities, and office dynamics.

So, with the help of an amazing manager, smart coworkers, Google, late nights, and a lot of determination to simply learn, I’m muddling my way through. As someone for whom most everything has come easily, it’s been a humbling experience. And slowly, as I get over the fear of being found out for using her mouse while modeling or that all my Internet searches are how to do X in Excel, I’m finding that perhaps the only way to set yourself up for success is to pursue failure.


emilyEmily is a poet, not a quant. She spent six years as a writer and editor in the NYC publishing scene, and recently graduated from The Wharton School. Now, she lives in Los Angeles where she’s working at PlayStation, making her own green juice, and learning how to drive (again).


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