March 18, 2016

Exit sign

Hoping to succeed? It might be better to exit first. Credit: Andrew Malone / Flickr Creative Commons

How do you handle failures? Do you dwell on them? Forget them? Or maybe you’re like me: you run away and pretend they never happened.

Matthew Syed has a theory about failure. In his book, Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, he argues that the way we look at failure determines our success.

This is true on both an individual level and an institutional level.

Of course, every industry deals with failure, all in different ways. According to Syed, healthcare doesn’t do a very good job of recognizing mistakes and making large-scale changes. Aviation, on the other hand, takes failures very seriously.

“At an institutional level, aviation is very good when there are near-miss events… And if there is a really serious system failure, a plane crash, every aircraft is equipped with two almost indestructible black boxes,” says Syed.

The idea of a “black box” (they're actually bright orange in planes) means failure in aviation is data-rich. But personal failure doesn’t always have objective information for us to analyze.

We can, however, use the information we have from personal failures to test ideas and change them.

“With every single failure, you’re learning something new about the problem you confront,” Syed says. “What you really want is two separable components: one, the capacity to face up to one’s mistakes… but the second thing you need, which is just as important, is the capacity to adapt to the mistake.”

For Syed, what makes successful people unique is their ability to take a trial-and-error approach. For example, before David Beckham was David Beckham, he took major criticism at the 1998 World Cup, which could have ended his career.

“He had that capacity to see that failure: he kicked at an opponent. He knew it was a mistake, but he never did the same thing again,” says Syed.

Embracing failure, however, isn’t all that easy.

“It’s so easy, if something doesn’t go right, to be defensive, to self-justify, rather than say, ‘you know what, that’s really interesting,’” Syed says. “And I have to admit, it’s still difficult.”

Body and Mind, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed

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