It’s astonishing how candid children are about their failures. I’ll come home, and one of my young daughters will say, “Daddy, I got in trouble for flushing my plastic toy down the toilet so that we had to call the plumber!” It’s not that they don’t get failure. They find it discouraging and sometimes very saddening. It’s just that their embarrassment doesn’t tempt them to rationalize and conceal yet.

Victory isn’t like this. Children seem instinctively proud of winning. Our victories and successes are the things that we like to tell other people about — or, if we are humble, that we like to have others told about us. And, humble or proud, nobody really likes for their failures to be discussed unless there’s a thorough understanding of all the successes that mitigate them.

Failure and success define most of the major milestones of our lives. I may decide to start spending an hour a day with my children, but whether this is a step forward or a step backward depends largely on how much I’ve hitherto succeeded or failed as a father. If it’s a success, it will, no doubt, prove that the wheels of my personal progress move eternally forward. If it’s a failure, then it’s either not my fault or it’s a step on the way to some greater success that I can take credit for. In either case, I’ll wrap it up in a nice, tidy story that makes sense of the situation. String all of my stories together, and the resulting narrative represents the lens through which I want others to view my life.

This is what successes and failures mean to us. When someone suffers a major failure or achieves a great success, the meaning is determined by the story she tells to make it fit into the ever-unfolding narrative of her life.

Recently, I achieved something that I consider to be a notable success. Specifically, I won a court case that I’ve been pursuing for more than 6 years. The emotional and financial cost of pursuing it has been enormous. In 2000, I struck a deal with my business partners to sell my portion of our business. Months later, they reneged on our deal, eventually ceasing to honor any part of it and waging a dirty campaign to impose substantially worse terms. They tried to impose financial hardship using the IRS by assigning me tax liability in order to get me to cave-in. They put their company through bankruptcy to get out from under the initial judgment that I won. Finally, I won a judgment against them personally for the entire amount. After deliberating for a mere 3 hours, a jury of their peers — 12 out of the 14 jurors had bachelor degrees; 6 had graduate degrees — found that they were liars and cheats.

There is, of course, a story that I tell about this success. But this success of mine represents a series of failures on the part of my former business partners. As I contemplate my victory, I’m lead to wonder what meaning they ascribe to this event, what story they tell others about it. After everything they’ve done, it’s clearly too much to expect all of them to say, “I need to be more honest. I need to be less greedy.” They’re not children anymore.

One of my former business partners is an old man. He had accumulated substantial business experience before we brought him on board as one of our business partners. But he displayed glaringly poor judgment in masterminding the strategy they pursued in trying to bury me. He’s used to dealing with people in a heavy-handed fashion, and he’s got to explain to himself why he couldn’t get me to just roll over. The story that he tells is probably about how I’m a punk kid with a vendetta. But that story is false.

Two of my partners were college schoolmates of mine, identical-twin brothers. In the end, they forced all the other partners out of the company so that they could hold a majority share between the two of them. They may have gone along with the old man because they were enamored by his experience and his command and control. It’s likely that they tell a story that blames him for the loss and complains about how the court screwed them over. And that story is false.

Another former partner was only on board for a year. Unfortunately for him, this was the year that everyone decided to disavow the contract and unilaterally try to enforce other terms. He probably tells a story about how everyone else sucked him in, and how he was just going along to get along. And that story is false.

The last former partner wasn’t part of the judgment that I won. I settled with him. When deposed, he told the truth, and that helped my case immensely. Two years ago, after I’d won a judgment against the company, he came to me and apologized for all the dirty dealing. Last month, shortly before the trial, he alone approached me about settling. I did settle with this one former partner, and if I may say so, it’s a good thing for him, too. I think that he did end up saying to himself, “I need to be more honest. I need to be less greedy.”

I, myself, tell a David vs. Goliath type of story. Substantial corporate resources were brought to bear in order to bury my claim, and you really wouldn’t believe how much it costs to litigate for 6 years. My lawyers proved to be worth every penny, because they meticulously assembled the evidence showing how my former partners lied at every turn, and they explained it all with clarity and passion.

Earnest Shackleton, the great Antarctic explorer, once said, “Some people say that it is wrong to regard life as a game; I don’t think so. Life to me means the greatest of all games. The danger lies in treating it as a trivial game, a game to be taken lightly, and a game in which the rules don’t matter much. The rules matter a great deal. The game has to be played fairly, or it is no game at all. And even to win the game is not the chief end. The chief end is to win it honorably and splendidly.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Now if I can just collect…

Update: There’s a write up of the verdict here in Lawyers Weekly (hat tip Brian Duffin). It’s reasonably accurate, but makes it sound as though my opponents lost their case because they decided to assert an “advice of counsel” defence. We had overwhelming evidence from the start (hence our ability to win summary judgment earlier).