April 10, 2013
Success Is Never Final
We like to think that history has an inevitability to it. We like to believe that there is an arc that goes from the bad old days to the good new days; that things move toward virtue; that freedom and prosperity will inevitably triumph and evil and depredation will ultimately be vanquished.
There is absolutely no reason to believe this. And yet we do.
It's the same type of silly belief we have about evolution. We believe that the purpose of evolution was to lead to a grand conclusion -- us. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are just the result of thousands of little contingencies. The world existed for 4 billion years very nicely without us, thank you.
Winston Churchill came as close as any one individual ever came to saving the world. Without him, the Nazis and their pals might very well have won WW II.
He was hailed as a hero. But was promptly evicted from office when his party lost the elections in 1945.
But Churchill was a realist. He said, "Success is never final."
The point is this -- you never know. You think you know, but you don't.
How else can you explain the astounding failure of Ron Johnson as ceo of JCPenney? Johnson was fired yesterday.
You couldn't possibly draw up a better candidate to lead that company. He had a bachelor's degree from Stanford in economics, an MBA from Harvard, he lead Target out of the dark ages, and headed up the most successful retail juggernaut in the history of retail juggernauts -- the Apple stores.
And yet his 17-month tenure at JCPenney was a disaster of unprecedented proportions. According to Business Insider, Penney's performance in the 4th quarter of last year was "probably the worst quarterly performance ever in the history of major retail."
Johnson took everything he learned at Stanford and Harvard and Target and Apple and applied it to JCPenney. And it was a catastrophe.
Success is always contingent. It has to do with where you are, who you are with, what the circumstances happen to be, and which way the wind is blowing.
The people who speak at conferences and write blogs and books and think they know something universal about advertising and marketing are all full of shit. What they know is what worked at one particular moment, at one particular place, under one particular set of circumstances.
To believe that anything about business, or any other human endeavor for that matter, is universally true or all-embracing is a philosophy for fools and a prescription for failure.