Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Losing And Still Winning

On the heals of my second place finish in the Adirondack marathon relay, I decided to run one more race this season – the Empire State half marathon. The unreasonable entry fees keep me from racing more often than I do, but having spent three months building up my conditioning, it made sense to capitalize on that with one more race.   Based on last year’s results I knew my goal time would put me right in the mix for an award in my age group.  My hopes were high.

The race was this past weekend.  I ran well, right on my goal pace throughout, and finished in 1:32:08, good enough for 41st overall in a field of about 1350.  I was anxious to see how that would stack up against the other 40-45 year olds.  Results were printed out and taped to the side of a trailer where a crowd gathered.  I wriggled my way to the front and found my listing.  The results were in.  I placed fourth in my age group.  Awards for the top three.  And I was fourth. 

All the satisfaction of my individual performance withered in the light of the posted race results that left me just shy of the podium.  My time was good.  But I was just another also-ran.  I got a finishers medal – same as Will Artley who finished 1349th overall and took two and a half times as long to cover the 13.1 miles.

The next day I interviewed for a new position at work, a district manager.  I wrote about the experience in my last post, comparing it to a coin toss.  From my vantage point it was a wholly uncertain outcome.  From God’s perspective, it was a settled physics formula.  He knew the outcome the moment he tossed the coin.  He controlled all the variables that determined whether the coin would land heads or tails. 

Since then the coin, flipping end-over-end, has come to rest.  All that spinning finished.  All that uncertainty settled.  I had called it heads as it was whirled through the air throbbing with vigor.  Now I gaze at a coin still as night, tales side up.  I did not get the job.  There was one candidate who beat me out based on experience.  I was runner-up, small consolation in a contest with only one prize.

Runner-up may be harder to stomach than back of the pack.  Close enough to taste victory, only to walk away with a mouth full of sand.  It’s a gritty chew that goes down hard.  Hope runs high and disappointment runs deep. The near miss has all the drama of victory and all the angst of defeat. It is being in the running and then losing on the final kick. But failure measured in inches is as much failure as that measured in yards.  There is little comfort is being the best of the losers.

I didn’t stay for the awards ceremony after the race.  Why bother?  I wouldn’t get anything for fourth place.  Later that day I went on the website to check out the results a bit more closely.  The results opened to a page entitled “HalfMarathon – Awards and Age Group Listing.”  I scrolled down to my age group and found my name listed in third place.  Third place?  But I was fourth.

It turns out that they also had an overall masters award for those forty and older.  The first place finisher in my age group was the overall masters winner.  Having won the masters, he was not included in the age group awards.  Everyone moved up a spot. I moved into third.  Knocked out of the awards only to discover a loophole allowing me to slide into third.  I lost; and yet I won.  This seems a formula that God employs frequently.

When he called to tell me the decision, the director of Human Resources said that he had bad news and good news.  The bad news was that I didn’t get the job.  The good news was that they recognized the need to create a career path to allow me to move forward.  They have decided to develop a new position for me – a regional supervisor.  As they build a third Syracuse location and expand the original Syracuse location to include full food service, they would like me to move out of a single store and begin to supervise six profit centers for Syracuse – three stores and three food service departments.  

I lost, and yet I won.  Missing out on the District Manager position hurts, but this regional supervisor may be better suited to me – less travel and more concentrated focus on three locations.  This is my strength.  I trained all the managers in the Syracuse market.  I am training two more now.  These are established relationships of trust and respect, easily leveraged for me to act as supervisor.  I run an increasingly profitable store, top line and bottom line and feel confident that this is reproducible.  I know our food service program well, from front line production to back house administrative work.  Even now I am helping a new food service supervisor in our store get his legs under him.  This seems a good fit, from every angle. 

It will be some time before the pieces fall into place, probably coinciding with the building of the new location in the next year or so.  But I am hopeful.  In losing the coin toss, I may still win the game.  The seeds of hope have been planted in the rich compost of disappointment.  On close inspection, I see the stem just breaking through the soil.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Coin Toss: Determined Randomness

Flipping a coin.  The most random of acts, used to settle disputes or choose between options.  The outcome is purely arbitrary.  The odds of landing heads or tails are even. Most noticeably, it is a mainstay in sports, football in particular – from the backyard Nerf game to the multimillion dollar NFL industry, we call it in the air to determine who will kick off and who will receive.

Outside the outcome of the game itself, the coin toss is the most wagered on aspect of the Superbowl.  Curiously, it had been won by the NFC for fourteen years straight leading up to the most recent Superbowl.  Even so, the odds in Vegas were even for heads or tails.  No matter how often the result has been the same, the chances remain 50 – 50 each time the coin is flipped.  The streak was broken and the AFC won the toss this past year.

Papa John’s pizza, the official pizza of the NFL, opted not to advertise during the Superbowl.  Instead, they poured their marketing budget into the coin toss.  If the toss came up heads, all of their rewards members would receive a free large pizza and two liter of Pepsi.  It did, and Papa John’s gave away millions of pies.  They also added scores of people to their rewards program, an invaluable source of targeted contact information.  Heads or tails, they won.

All of this – the decision of who will kick off, the Vegas line, and the Papa John’s pizza promotion - is tied to the randomness of the result.  The intrigue comes from this being a model of perfect chance.  Half the time it will end up heads, half the time tails.  There is no discernible pattern and no way to predict what the outcome will be.  You call a side and have a 50-50 chance of being right.

But really, the coin toss is not as random as we may think.  It is, instead, a matter of physics.  A flipping coin must obey established laws. Three primary variables are influencing the outcome – the rate of rotation, the amount of time the coin is in the air, and the amount of change in the axis of rotation.  Though complex in the computation, there is a formula at work with a mathematical solution. Control the variables and you can predict the outcome of the coin toss.

Persi Diaconis, a statistician at Harvard, did just that.  He built a coin flipper, a device that allowed a coin to be flipped repeatedly with the same conditions.  No matter how often it was tossed, the result was the same.  Diaconis could guarantee a heads or tails outcome.  From the moment of the toss, he knew how the coin would land.

The randomness is not in the flipping coin.  It is introduced by erratic humans. The coin flip is predictable, the coin flipper is not.  We flip the coin with varied force at different heights and different angles and catch it in the air at different moments.  The physics formula for flipping coins still holds, but it is impossible for us measure all those variables of speed and force and height in the moment that the coin is airborne.  From our perspective, the result is random.

But what if we could measure all those variables in that moment when the coin is spinning?  What if the formula was as simple as 2+2 and we could do it in our heads?  The coin flip would become far less useful as a random determinant.  We would know the outcome before the coin landed.  It would be determined from the moment the coin was launched.  In this there is a lesson of providence.

They posted a new position at work - a convenience store district manager.  Currently, I manage the company’s highest volume store.  There is no room for growth for me as a single store manager.  I’m at the top of that ladder.  A district manager is the next significant step in my career development. I meet all the qualifications they are looking for.  I sent my resume in.  Now I wait.

For all my qualifications, I would be foolish to think that I am the only potential candidate.  There are other high volume stores with equally competent managers.  I know I am on the short list (someone in the know let that slip).  I also know that, even if short, it is a list.  There are other qualified people who want this job.  I suspect there may be three or four of us vying for the position. 

It feels wholly uncertain to me.  I know I have a chance.  Maybe as good as 50-50.  Maybe less so.  I watch the coin flipping through the air waiting to see if it comes up heads.  Random?  Not quite.  The result of the coin toss is determined from the moment it leaves the hand.  The formula is too complex for me to figure out.  But the one who tossed the coin knew the outcome from the moment it was launched.

I believe in world that is under the control of a sovereign God.  He knows the formula and can do the computation.   He flipped the coin for an intended result.  While I wait anxiously for the outcome, God has already settled it.  Whether I will get the job or not will come as no surprise to him.  He flipped it that way.  This is determined randomness.  What from my vantage point is an arbitrary flip of a coin is from God’s viewpoint a settled physics equation.

I hope to get the job. But even more so I want to trust the coin flipper.  He knows what best.  This is not a coin toss in isolation.  There are countless concurrent coin tosses that are determining the direction of my life.  I see the one coin spinning, he see the myriad…and promises that the outcome of  them all will work out for my good.  Even if this one ends up tails.  Heads I win.  Tails I win.  But when I call it in the air, I’m still picking heads.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Successful Failure Pt. 5 - Setting a Standard

That's me on the podium, second from the left
I ran the Adirondack Marathon Relay recently.  I was the second leg of a two man relay team.  In a post about failure, I suppose it is unbecoming to mention that we placed second in the relay.  My legs recovered after a couple of days, but my ego is still a bit swollen.

But this post isn’t about my race.  In addition to the marathon and marathon relay, there was also a half marathon, which started at the relay exchange, about half way around Schroon Lake.  The half marathon began an hour after the marathon and I knew my partner would take a little over an hour and a half to reach the exchange.  So I was able to watch the start of the half marathon before warming up.

In the throng at the start line, I noticed an older man.  In many ways he looked like all the other runners - dressed in exercise pants with race bib pinned to the front of his tech shirt.  But while other runners fiddled with their ipods at the start, he gripped his walker.  The gun went off and the sound of pounding feet was joined by the scrape of a shuffling walker.  The old man’s hunched frame bore weight down on the metal bars as he crept across the start and onto the course.  He settled into last place.

For half an hour I bottled up my adrenalin as I awaited my relay partner.  He arrived, the exchange was made, and I was off, chasing down the pack of half marathoners who had a nearly thirty five minute head start.  I knew I would catch some of them over the ensuing 13 miles, but figured it would take a few miles to close the gap.  About a mile in, I reached the trailing half marathoner much sooner than I expected.  It was the shuffling old man.  There were many others I passed subsequently, nondescript and easily forgotten.  Not the man with the walker.  He stood out from the rest.

As I arrived in town there were crowds cheering, a drum band playing, a digital time clock  ticking, and an announcer naming incoming runners.  Medals were hung around the necks of finishers as they walked the shoot.  Warming blankets were available. The massage tent was crowded.  The refreshment tent was abounding.  The runners were giddy. And the old man, I suspect, was slowly trudging along somewhere near mile three. 

It had taken him nearly 45 minutes to walk the first mile.  Multiply that out over 13 miles and you realize that it would take him almost ten hours to reach the finish line.  Having started at 10 in the morning, he would reach the terminus at 8 in the evening, long after the race was over.  According to the information packet I had received, the course was officially open until 3:00 pm.  After that, closed street would reopen, officers controlling traffic would head home, and the finish line reverie would wind down.  Hours later, in dim light he would enter the village of Schroon Lake and shuffle down empty streets to the vacant park that had served as the post-race party site earlier in the day. 

I don’t know if he finished.  He gets no mention in the official race results.  All the timing mats were long gone by the time he would have finished.  I like to think he did.  A man with enough resolve to enter a half marathon though dependant on a walker seems like someone who would finish no matter how long it took.  Supposing he did, he most certainly was in last place.

Last place sounds like failure.  But who, watching this man hobble his way through thirteen miles, would ever call his race a letdown?  His finish may have been the most inspirational of all the participants, even if few were there to witness it.  He didn’t run to win.  He ran to finish.  And for him to finish was a greater display of courage and commitment than the hundreds who finished before him.   Completing a half marathon is an accomplishment that even fully mobile people find difficult.  When is the last time you traveled thirteen miles by foot?  You could argue that the failure of last place was a greater success then my second place finish. 

So this, my last post on failure.  We have considered how failure can be our ally (Part 1).  It allows us to develop persistence (Part 2), make progress (Part 3), and establish credibility (Part 4).  I close with this thought – success and failure are contingent on a standard.  To succeed is to reach or surpass that standard.  To fail is to fall short of that mark.  Sometimes, the issue isn’t with the execution, it’s with the aspiration.  We aim for the wrong things.  We embrace the wrong standard.  It may be that we expect too much of ourselves…or too little.  Or maybe I have accepted someone else’s standard for me, allowing them to define the measurement of my success.

To have finished a half marathon in 10 hours would have been a horrible failure for me, but for this old man, it would be a raging success.  Like the woman who puts two small copper coins into the temple treasury who Jesus says gave more than all the rest.  Others gave out of their wealth, she gave out of her poverty and put in all she had to live on (Luke 21:1-4).  Sometimes success for one person would be failure for another. 

As a writer who believes in absolute truth, I bristle at the subjectivity of those last two paragraphs.  They feel too wily nilly; untethered to anything absolute.  It comes with a caveat.  In the realm of morality, there is an absolute standard that has been set, a standard that is encapsulated in the biblical theme of holiness.  That would be a whole other post. 

But here, as I think about success and failure, I have in mind the many instances when the standard is not set out as a black and white moral absolute.  These are goals, aspirations that we strive for.  To finish a half marathon in under two hours or in under ten hours, either one may be appropriate.  Goals must be personally relevant, set high enough to make you stretch and low enough to be attainable.  That will be different for me and you.  Failure may be an opportunity to reevaluate the goal to determine if you are aiming at the right thing. 

I race again in a week and a half at the Empire State Half Marathon.  I’m shooting for 1:32 , which is a respectable pace by any standard.  But it’s attainable, for me at least.  I don’t race with a walker.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Successful Failure Pt.4 - Credibility

After introducing this series with the idea of failure as an ally (Part 1), I went on to write that failure allows us to develop persistence (Part 2) and make progress (Part 3). Here I offer a third way that failure can be to our advantage.

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy. Proverbs 28:13

Sometimes I get caught with my hand in the cookie jar.  I am pinned down with no escape.  My guilt is evident.  I cry “Uncle.”  But more often, my failure is not so obvious.  There is an opening, whether a crack or a gaping hole, for me to escape the charge.  Fingers, after all, were made for pointing.  I can shift the blame, make excuses, hide the evidence, redefine my intention, deny my role.  These, the currency of avoiding responsibility.  My wallet is full of them.

And yet, I know how unappealing I find this in others.  It is hard to trust those who always take credit and never accept blame.  When appearance is paramount, truth and honesty are eclipsed.  When given an excuse, I usually accept it graciously.  But seeds of doubt are planted.  The more excuses offered, the less plausible they appear.  I wonder if they realize that in saving face, they are losing credibility.
I’m a retail manager at Delta Sonic, a carwash / detail shop / gas station/ convenience store /brick oven pizza / Tim Hortons / deli.  I oversee the store and foodservice.  A chunk of my job involves interacting with customers, particularly those that are dissatisfied.  Sometimes I botch this. 

Recently, we were running a special where if you spent $12 on our foodservice, you would receive a $5 gift certificate for wash or detail services.  It was well promoted, displayed on every table menu and poster sized clip signs on the building exterior. 

Then we ran out of gift certificates.  I didn’t realize until one of my cashiers asked if we had any more.  I checked the safe, which is on a three minute time lock, and told my cashier that we had run out.  By this time, the customer had already picked up their food and sat down at a table to eat.  Knowing how prominently we were advertising a promotion that we could not fulfill, I collected all the table menus, removed all other advertising, and sent an e-mail requesting more gift certificates.  I did nothing for the customer.  When she returned to the counter to ask about the gift card, my cashier explained that we had run out.  Again, I did nothing for the customers.  She didn’t seem visibly upset, but I did not take any initiative to make things right. 

Later that day, she sent a blistering e-mail to our customer service department about my indifference to her, accusing me of being more concerned about “scurrying around to confiscate all evidence of the promotion.”  Ouch.  Painful - not only in the forcefulness, but in the truthfulness.  She was right.
I know the contents of the e-mail because my district manager wanted an explanation.  I had none. I had delivered poor customer service, for which there was no excuse.  I could have easily offered her free wash passes or a handwritten $5 gift certificate.  I didn’t.  And no matter how good the food, the customer left with a bad taste in their mouth.  I made a mistake, which is what I told my district manager.   I took responsibility for my failure, resisting the urge to offer any excuse.  This was a blow to my pride, but a boost to my credibility. 

About a month later, I was the subject of another e-mail, this time related to a customer who had trouble pumping her gas.  When she spoke with me about it, I asked if she was able to pump her gas in the end.  She said she was, but thought someone should know that the pump was not acting properly.  I told her I would have someone check it out.  She appeared satisfied when she left.  End of story.  Except that she sent a scathing e-mail to our customer service department, accusing me cheating her out of gas.  She is convinced that the pump was charging her when no gas was going through the line.  This was not what I understood her complaint to be.

My district manager wanted an explanation.  I told him that what she was communicating in the e-mail was not what she communicated with me in the store.  Even in hindsight I felt like I had handled it well.  Hearing two sides, my district manager accepted my account.  He took me at my word.  I suspect that is, in part, because I have shown a willingness to take responsibility when I am wrong.  I had built of reputation of standing in the truth rather than leaning on excuses. 

After telling the disciples not resort to oaths to establish their credibility, Jesus says, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.”  (Matthew 5:37).  Our credibility should be so well established that we need not resort to emphatic promises of truthfulness.  When the truth of our pronouncements must be verified by calling God as witness (“I swear to God”) or inviting personal harm for deceit (“cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye”) then we are implicitly acknowledging our dishonesty.  A monosyllabic “Yes” or “No” should be adequate. 

Which brings me back to successful failure.  Failure is a testing ground for truth, an opportunity to establish my credibility.  Anyone can be honest in the light of success.  Candor comes easy when the accolades flow.  But in the shadows of failure, honestly is an act of courage.  Chastisement and blame are bitter pills to swallow.  To take that medicine may provide the opportunity to fix the failure, but not always.  What is certain is that taking that medicine will build your trustworthiness.  If I admit it when I am wrong, then I am believable when I am right.  And if I had to chose, I’d rather be known for my unwavering credibility than for my unblemished competence.