“About Schmidt” is a great comedy-drama starring Jack Nicholson as Schmidt, a resoundingly average man entering retirement age who looks back on his life with dissatisfaction. His estranged wife dies, his daughter is set to marry a man who Schmidt hates, and the company for which he spent his entire adult life working as an accountant is moving on without him – shredding countless boxes of his life’s work in a poignant and subtle early scene.
Throughout the film, Schmidt regales his problems in written letters to an African child, Ndugu, who he was buffaloed into sponsoring through a children’s charity. It is a clever expository device. By the end of the movie, Schmidt makes a depressing realization: he’s a jerk, most of his problems are his own fault, and he has ultimately accomplished nothing in his life. As Schmidt writes to Ndugu in his last letter of the film, “Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed.”
Yikes. Not the stuff of heart-warming family comedy.
But wait! By the end, a surprise – Schmidt receives a letter back:
When you’ve put down the handkerchief, we can move on.
I’d like to consider the lesson of “About Schmidt” in a smaller context. Think about your own on-the-job failures in the course of your career. Nothing is worse than feeling like you’ve wasted time and energy on something that ended in failure. A huge project can fall apart; hours of busywork can be rendered moot. Countless meetings and phone calls turned into wasted breath. What was it all for, then?
This is the wrong way to look at things. Failure isn’t just failure; at the risk of sounding cliche, it’s an opportunity to learn something. Maybe you did spend 50+ hours on that project which was deemed unnecessary in the home stretch; but you learned something about the subject matter. You brushed up on valuable skills. You built relationships with key stakeholders. It may seem like it was all for naught, but there was a silver lining all along – you just may not have realized it at the time.
A client once tasked me with looking at their instance of System Center Configuration Manager 2012, meant for large-scale domain and device administration. It had barely been touched since being implemented a few years prior and they wanted to get it spun back up for use. I must’ve spent upwards of at least 45 hours on the thing and couldn’t seem to make a lick of progress. It was maddening, to say the least. But I was determined. I wanted to make it work, and I poured my heart and soul into this for a few good weeks (in between other projects and daily work).
Then one day, I made a stunning and heartbreaking discovery: SCCM 2012 was not compatible with administering any versions of Windows 10 newer than 1511 (long swept into the dustbin of history by this time). The software was obsolete and useless to us, and had been since the first day I touched it. All that time and effort spent on something that was ultimately doomed from the beginning!
And it felt like a total waste at first, but there was a lot I had learned along the way: I went from knowing nothing about systems management software to knowing quite a bit, from how its deployed to how its operated and administered. I learned a huge amount about Windows versioning and paying attention to how new software updates can render other software obsolete. I learned how to explore unfamiliar software and figure out it’s form and function completely on my own.
A waste? Hardly. I carry these things forward in my future endeavors – and so it is with your own experiences. One failure’s silver lining could turn into a future problem’s silver bullet. You never know when the skills, knowledge, and relationships built in the course of what became a failure could later become instrumental to your success. Take stock of these things when you can – make a list if you need to. What you’ve learned and gained from a failure may surprise you.
When Schmidt got his letter from Ndugu, he realized that there had been good in his existence after all – and that there was still yet time to do good with his life. Again – smaller context, but same principle: There’s good in your failures. After you’ve picked yourself up and dusted yourself off, reflect on the good – carry it forward and put it to work!