Jim Wolfensohn was a second-year student at the University of Sydney when a friend of his and the captain of the fencing team, Rupert Bligh, asked if he wanted to go to Melbourne the next day to fence in the national university championships.
“You’ve got to be mad,” Jim said. “I’ve never fenced in my life.”
Rupert wasn’t mad, just desperate. A member of the team had fallen ill and they needed a replacement to qualify for the event.
It was a crazy thing to consider. Jim had no money for the trip to Melbourne and no chance of success.
But he said yes, borrowed the money from his parents, and learned what he could from his new teammates on the train to Melbourne.
What a wonderful story this would be if it ended with Jim uncovering a hidden, inborn talent and vanquishing all his opponents. But that’s not this story. Jim lost every bout and failed to score a single point.
Still, he writes in his well-worth-the-read memoir, A Global Life, “I tried to invent new ways to score points on the opponent…I could not remember having such a good time ever before.”
Even with his losses, the team won the championship. And Jim stuck with fencing for years, eventually fencing in the 1956 Olympics and becoming President of the World Bank, a position he held from 1995 to 2005.
What does Jim’s fencing experience have to do with his esteemed business and political career? Everything.
Every life story is complex, with an infinite number of factors contributing to a person’s fate. And yet, there are patterns, ways in which we habitually interact with our experiences. Over time, those patterns become our destinies.
For most of us, our patterns can be seen early in our lives. Jim’s patterns — the ones that led him to great personal, business, and political success — were already clear in his failed fencing bouts.
First, some disclosure: I’ve known Jim most of my life and have always admired him, not just for his accomplishments, but also for his integrity as a person and as a leader. He’s always been on my short list of people I want to be like when I grow up. I’m still working on it.
So what’s the pattern behind Jim’s success?
Psychologists might focus on his upbringing. He grew up poor and developed the dynamic combination of insecurity and ambition that underlies so many stories of achievement.
Life coaches might point to his willingness to agree to opportunities that are larger than he can could handle — often without even really knowing what he was getting into — and then to work tirelessly to succeed, accepting help wherever he could find it.
Sure, consultants might offer, that’s part of it. But the real source of his success is his analytical mind and the disciplined way he solves problems. He enters a situation and assesses it, seeking to understand the system and figure out what’s getting in the way. He identifies the smallest number of actions that will have the biggest impact, and he follows through.
It’s his optimism, positive psychologists would likely suggest. How else could he say, after losing every bout, “I could not remember having such a good time ever before.” And his relationships gave him opportunities, as well. He never would have fenced if not for Rupert offering him a place on the team.
Yes, but he would not have been able to achieve anything if he were not capable, his professors at Harvard would argue. Jim is smart and skilled. He works hard. And he never stops learning. The story of his fencing trip to Melbourne is dramatic, but his success as a fencer — and as a business and world leader — is hidden in the long stretch between that bout and the Olympics. He spent years working hard, honing his skills, and increasing his talent.
Maybe Jim’s pattern is really an equation: Jim = integrity + insecurity + ambition + saying yes + asking for help + problem solving + optimism + relationships + capability. Like I said, every life story is complex.
But the more I think about Jim, the more clearly I see simplicity in his success. A single underlying force drove his decision-making. It’s the key that unlocked his equation. Without it, his tremendous talent would have lain dormant.
That key is a question.
Most people, when they explore an opportunity, next step, or decision, ask: “Will I succeed?”
But Jim asks a different question: “Is it worth the risk?”
The difference in those questions is the difference between never fencing at all and fencing in the Olympics. When Rupert asked Jim to fence in the championships, there’s no chance he could have succeeded. Failure was the inevitable outcome. But was it worth the risk? For Jim, it certainly was.
Jim’s approach to life is to take a risk, learn from it, and take his new knowledge and understanding to the next risk. Failure is an essential part of his strategy.
Really taking risks requires failing. You have to fear failure enough to work hard to make the risks pan out successfully, but not so much that you don’t take the risks in the first place. Viewed through the lens of learning, failure is at least as beneficial as success. Working only on things you’re pretty sure will work significantly limits what you can achieve. Instead, take risks. And then see what happens.
After serving as President of the World Bank, Jim was asked by President George W. Bush to be the Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement for the Middle East. If he had asked, “Will it work?” he would never have agreed to such a task. Instead, he asked the only question that matters — “Is it worth the risk?” — and took the job.