What Is Success? A Time Slot One Hour Away

Along with the rest of America, I've been following the debacle at NBC.  It has made me ask the question, "What is success?" and to realize that the difference between success and failure can be something as simple as a time slot one hour away. 


That's not what we're taught.  We like to believe that success is something you pave the way for, that you earn, that you learn, that you build upon, that you work hard for.   All of that is true, of course.  It is also true, maybe equally so, that small shifts in circumstance, opportunity, people, or surrounding conditions can spell a difference between triumph and disaster.


In this case, Conan was riding high five years ago and he struck a deal with NBC that he would not shift to the slot hosting a late-night show on another channel if he could be guaranteed Jay Leno's kingpin slot on the The Tonight Show.  Jay would retire.  Except that Leno is famously tireless.  Hosting a nightly talk show isn't enough; he travels around the country doing stand-up comedy in his spare time.    So when the five years was up, Leno wasn't happy about leaving and, more to the point, Conan's ratings had slipped.  But a contract is a contract.   So Leno was moved to prime time approximately one hour earlier and, per contract, Conan went into The Tonight Show slot opposite David Letterman on the Late Show at CBS.  It was a gamble.


 And it failed miserably.  Some called it the worst disaster in TV history, some called it the second worst.  It ended up with Jay going back to his old slot on the Tonight Show and Conan being bought out for many, many millions (some say $35M, some say $43M), and losing his show.   It's been a big deal, that's for sure.  


And fascinating from a producer and a consumer point of view.  Partly it is about habits.  Conan was a little too edgy and his comedy to out-there goofy for the after-the-news-and-ease-me-into-sleep spot where Jay's silly but mundane humor seemed to edge you toward sleep, not surprise.   Conan is for insomniacs and night owls, a different breed than working stiffs, it seems.   But the bigger point is all that is hind sight.  


And scary.  Is it really the case that we're often one time slot away from success?  Or failure?  I think we are.  The positive in that equation is that, sometimes, when everything seems desperate, the same adage that success can be one time slot away is also true.  It is useful to realize that one small adjustment can change the whole picture.   That's true in business or in personal life. The seeming chasm between glorious success and disastrous failure is sometimes, quite literally, the equivalent of a one-hour change in time slot.  Something was going well, now it is tanking.  Or vice versa.  It doesn't seem as if much has changed, but, measured as an outcome, everything has.  Do you scratch it all and start over?  Or maybe you keep the Conan lesson in mind and think about the difference of a time slot one hour away. 


That means that, in situations of disaster, it is often useful to look at the entire situation and try to figure out what adjustments in situation, purpose, audience, mission, goal, delivery, or even personnel--a switching of roles, for example--could make an enormous difference in the outcome.  In my field of academe, that means someone who is an adept  Director of Graduate Studies might make a perfectly awful Department Chair.  Or vice versa.  It may seem counterintuitive, but when you actually examine the qualities required for each position, you realize the skill set is very different.   In another field, it might meant that a dashing, daring, independent R and D (Research and Development) innovator might turn out to have terrible managerial skills and fail as the head of a department or as the CEO.  For kids, it might be switching from that big, fancy competitive school to the small local one (without that mean bully around the corner).  Small change--and it can make all the difference.


It's all about match.  But match can be something as simple and as crucial as aligning qualities with requirements in a given situation or job.   We tend to think success is about the "person," as if a person were a unified subject whose excellence shone in all situations.   In fact, we all have many excellent qualities and many excellent ones--and our good ones shine in some circumstances and our bad ones, unfortunately, also broadcast themselves in other circumstances.  


One excellent quality that Conan manifested last night that is essential here is the lack of cynicism.  He took everyone by surprise when, in the midst of all of the mayhem, he thanked NBC for many, many years of a successful career there (i.e. before the Tonight Show debacle), and told the audience that he was the luckiest person on earth and gave an admonition, especially to his young fans:  Don't be cynical.  He said cynicism was his least favorite human quality, and I happen to share that distaste for cynicism.  Among other things, being cynical forecloses the possibility of change, or of turning a disaster into a success story.  We all know Conan is going to do just fine.  He'll be back.  But it may well be that lack of cynicism is the psychological characteristic that will allow him to understand that he was successful one slot back, and he can be successful again--one slot away, whatever way we want to define that contingent possibility ahead. 


That's the useful moral to the Conan-Leno story.   Success may be one time slot away--if we are creative, flexible, open, and uncynical enough to figure out where that might be and how we might make it happen.  This is by no means saying there aren't unjust and unfair situations in the world.  Of course there are!  Surviving against odds does not change the odds that stack against us.   (That will be the subject of another blog sometime soon.)    What I mean by that metaphor is that, if things seem entirely bleak and wrong, it's useful to break down all the conditions and think about how one switch in one area might actually make a significant difference in the final outcome.  Do you need a new managing partner in your business?  Would you be better not doing both the budget and the visionary innovation and be better off splitting and sharing those roles (either one or parts of both) with others?  Maybe everyone would do better if you stepped out of a leadership role and handed that to someone better at crisis management even though you were brilliant in the flush times.  Some people have qualities that blossom under pressure; other people crumble.  Those are the kinds of variations in situations that can make all the difference.


To understand the metaphor of "success as a time slot one hour away," though requires a special skill of self-assessment and situational assessment.  It requires a realistic assessment of what isn't working, what is working, and what could be working with some practical changes in roles.   And it requires understanding ourselves not as consistent in all circumstances but as having strengths and weaknesses that are always relative to the situation in which we find ourselves.  If we master that lesson, take it to heart and make it a practice, we can sometimes find ways to thrive even in crushing situations that feel as if they are spinning out of control.  The key is realizing that sometimes it is the small change, one time slot away, that can be the key.