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  • Dan Connors

Learning from our mitsakes- there is a right way to be wrogn.

Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well

“As golf champion Yani Tseng puts it, “You always learn something from mistakes.” What can we take away from the practices of elite athletes? It seems to me that they learn how to confront their mistakes by focusing instead on possibility—on the achievements palpably within reach even if they eluded you today. They show us how to care more about tomorrow’s goal than today’s ego gratification.” Amy Edmondson

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new." Albert Einstein

"To err is human, but to blame somebody else, that's even more human." Unknown

Why do we have such an aversion to failure? It's uncomfortable, of course, but it's the only way we learn anything. Before we walked, we fell down as toddlers. Everybody starts off in a state of ignorance, and our only way out of it is trial and error. Sure, we can try to learn from books, role models, Google, or by watching others succeed or fail, but the only way we each can reach our potential is to risk failure, which is often met with shame, scorn, and ridicule. It seems that as we age, our egos become even more fragile, as our identity becomes tied to perceived competence. But are we so fragile that we're afraid to fail or be vulnerable? Doesn't that make us weaker instead of stronger?

The elusive secret remains in how we frame our failures. We can frame them as embarrassments and ignore them. We can frame them as someone else's fault, which temporarily absolves our self-image. To do either of these things robs us of the opportunity to learn from failures and do better the next time. Somehow we need to re-frame failure as a normal and good thing, and an opportunity to grow and learn.

This is the basis of The Right Kind of Wrong, a new book by Amy Edmondson that looks at failures and how to deal with them. The author is a professor at Harvard's MBA program and has written 25 books on business management. This book is more for anybody who struggles with the fear of making a mistake.

Edmondson groups types of failures into three distinct groups.

  1. Basic failures that are preventable are a product of neglect, distraction, or overconfidence. These include such things as forgetting your lunch, taking the wrong freeway exit, or giving the wrong drug to a patient. Mistakes like these can be major or minor ones, and can be minimized (but never eliminated) by planning and precautionary measures. Humans are always prone to making basic errors. Perfectionism is the enemy here. Expecting to never make mistakes like these is impossible in our fast-moving, complex world.

  2. Complex failures are those that have more than one cause. Things like the weather, human error, faulty parts, and socioeconomic factors can combine to create large or lengthy mistakes, including destructive disasters. Things like plane crashes, recessions, or baseball teams ending up in last place are complex failures. One person can't necessarily control a complex failure, but they can be key in detecting problems before they snowball into bigger ones.

  3. Intelligent failures are the main focus of the book. These are normal failures any time someone goes into new, unexplored territory. Trying an experiment, starting a new sport or hobby, or developing a new product are all drivers for intelligent failures (aka the right kind of wrong). The key is that these activities need to be towards some kind of goal, hypothesis driven with each step, and small enough that the failures don't hurt too much. The knowledge gained from these failures tell us what NOT to do, so that we can more clearly see what works in a world with many options.

(I would add a fourth type of wrong the author doesn't address. Ideological failures. This is when your ideology prevents you from seeing the world as it is. We all do this to some extent, but some of us base our entire identities on being right about religion, politics, and how things work that they ignore any conflicting information. This is how conspiracy theories are born, and they are drag us into territories where we learn very little and drift further and further away from reality.)

We live in a competitive world, where people often try to take advantage of other's mistakes. Or they try to blame mistakes on someone or something else. On social media people promote curated visions of themselves that ignore even the possibility of failure. So it's psychologically hard to face failures publicly, or even privately without feeling embarrassment or shame. The problem is, that by hiding our failures we rob ourselves of the chance to learn from them (while also robbing those around us of the chance to learn as well.)

Looking at recent history, it's depressing how little the USA has learned from its mistakes, mostly because politicians and voters refuse to entertain the painful truths. The corruption of Watergate keeps getting repeated The foolishness of Vietnam led us into wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the failures of supply side economics keep getting repeated decade after decade. And acknowledging the damage that fossil fuels have done to our environment continues to be a challenge that few can wrap their heads around.

Edmondson's prescription for all of this boils down to two things- awareness and psychological safety. Awareness means that we don't look away from things that go wrong. We pay attention and re-frame them into something positive that we can learn from. A heart attack can be very bad, but it can also be a launching pad to a much healthier lifestyle. There's even a term for this- Post Traumatic Growth. We have to be self-aware, situationally aware, and systemically aware of the things that surround us that can and will go wrong sometimes. Ideally we won't be so surprised when things go wrong, and can be prepared to address and learn from them.

Psychological safety can only come from the top, but it is key to catching errors and learning from them. Toyota has the Andon Cord, that anyone on an assembly line can pull if they see something wrong, stopping everything. Pulling the cord is encouraged and rewarded, and it has led to Toyota being a leader in quality cars. In medicine, nurses are trying to install safety measures where they can correct doctors safely when necessary, which cuts down on medical errors. And there are a number of corporations that give employees a certain amount of time every week to work on projects and innovations of their own making, even celebrating the failures that didn't quite work out.

It's an uphill climb. Egos of those at the top can be fragile and threatened easily, so many are loathe to invite input from those below them. It makes them feel weak and vulnerable. But to expect those at the top to have all the answers is insanity. Information has to flow both ways for a society to function well. Admitting and correcting mistakes is the only way to get past them. And inviting intelligent mistakes more and more into our lives might make things harder at first, but it's the only path to growth.

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