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Three Famous Career Pivots

How Andrew Mason, Sam Adams and Albert Einstein transformed their careers after a series of failures.

Three Famous Career Pivots
[Photo: Flickr user Kevin Poh]

In basketball, you are only allowed to take two steps after you stop dribbling the ball. When you take that last step, the foot you land on becomes a “pivot foot.” That foot must remain fixed, but the other can move freely about, allowing you to spin around. Though you are confined to a location, at no point are you locked into any set direction. That’s the beauty of the move. Even when all other options are exhausted, you can always pivot.

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A pivot is powerful because it takes away all excuses and puts you back in control. In life and business, pivoting–changing directions when things aren’t working–is an essential ingredient for winning.

We often look at successful people, hearing their stories of failure, and think they succeeded in spite of the fact that they failed. But that’s not true. Successful people and organizations don’t succeed in spite of failure; they succeed because of it. So let’s look at three different examples from history and see how failure was instrumental in their success.

Groupon’s Unexpected Success

In 2006, a graduate student Andrew Mason launched a company called The Point, backed by an entrepreneur named Eric Lefkofsky. It was a website intended to bring groups of people together to solve social problems. The idea was to use social media to rally people around a cause and motivate them to act.

Andrew Mason of GrouponPhoto: Flickr user Aaron Fulkerson

The startup, in spite of its good intentions, didn’t take off. When the recession hit in 2008, The Point was in trouble. After losing nearly $1 million, they decided to try something new. The new idea, born out of financial distress, was to get 20 people to buy the same product and try to get a group discount. Although this concept had been introduced in the original business plan by Lefkofsky, Mason and the other team members shot it down. This time, though, he wouldn’t let it go.

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It worked. And that’s how Groupon, a company valued at almost $13bn dollars at the time of its IPO in 2011, was born. They certainly didn’t plan for any of it at the start. They did something much more effective. They pivoted. When things didn’t go well, they didn’t assume they knew what their audience wanted. They changed course and headed in a new direction.

Samuel Adams’ Series of Failed Careers

The founding father who now has a beer named after him was also a man well acquainted with failure.

First, he tried to be a lawyer. When that didn’t work, he pursued a career as a maltster–a person who makes the malt that is later used in beer-making. Then, he tried his hand at business and failed at that, too.

Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

No matter what he attempted, success seemed to evade Adams. His family, who had high hopes for him, was beginning to worry he might not amount to much. It wasn’t until he became involved in politics–initially through writing for local Boston newspapers and attending town hall meetings–that he came alive, finding the work he was born to do.

Through his writings, Samuel Adams became the voice of the American Revolution, and it was that voice that roused others like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to the cause. He was, in the words of Jefferson, “truly the man of the Revolution.”

Can you imagine what would have happened if he had given up on his first, second, or even third attempt at making his mark? How might the fate of a nation have been different had he submitted to his failure instead of pushing through it?

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Albert Einstein’s Unusual Practice Regimen

Albert Einstein was not the overnight genius we might imagine. In 1895, at the age of 16, he failed his entrance exams for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zürich and was sent to another school where he completed his secondary education.

Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

When he was finally admitted to the Zürich Polytechnic, he studied math and physics. After graduating, he spent two years searching in in vain for a teaching position before finally giving up and getting a job at a patent office.

For the next several years, he endured the mundane work of reviewing patent requests. But it was during this period of time that Einstein conducted his now-famous thought experiments, which formed the basis for what would become his special theory of relativity.

Einstein could have wasted all that time, all those years sitting in the patent office, but instead he chose to use those mundane moments and make the most of him. He could have felt frustrated at his lack of opportunity, but instead he used it. And the world has not forgotten his name since.

Jeff Goins is the author of four books including his most recent, The Art Of Work: A Proven Path To Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. He lives in Nashville with his son, wife, and border collie. Find out more about his new book at artofworkbook.com.

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