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Why failure is the key to flying high

If at first you don’t succeed: Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Photograph: Miramax/Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Matthew Syed in The Guardian

We want our children to succeed, in school and, perhaps even more importantly, in life. But the paradox is that our children can only truly succeed if they first learn how to fail. Consider the finding that world-class figure skaters fall over more often in practice than low-level figure skaters. At first sight this seems contradictory. Why are the really good skaters falling over the most?

The reason is actually quite simple. Top skaters are constantly challenging themselves in practice, attempting jumps that stretch their limitations. This is why they fall over so often, but it is precisely why they learn so fast. Shizuka Arakawa of Japan estimates that she endured some 20,000 falls as she progressed from a beginner to an Olympic champion.

Lower-level skaters have a quite different approach. They are always attempting jumps they can already do very easily, remaining within their comfort zone. This is why they don’t fall over. In a superficial sense, they look successful, because they are always on their feet. The truth, however, is that by never failing, they never progress.
What is true of skating is also true of life. James Dyson worked through 5,126 failed prototypes for his dual cyclone vacuum before coming up with the design that made his fortune. These failures were essential to the pathway of learning. As Dyson put it: “You can’t develop new technology unless you test new ideas and learn when things go wrong. Failure is essential to invention.”

Even in areas of life where failure is potentially catastrophic, it is still vital to respond positively. In aviation, for example, every aircraft is equipped with two almost-indestructible black boxes: one records the electronic information from the on-board computers and the other records sounds in the cockpit. When there is a crash, these boxes are recovered and analysed so that enlightened changes can be enacted. This means that the same mistake never happens again. It is this constant willingness to learn from failure that means aviation has become one of the world’s safest forms of transportation. Last year the accident rate for major airlines was just one crash for every 8.3 million take-offs.

In healthcare, however, things are very different. Clinicians don’t like to admit to failure, partly because they have healthy egos (particularly the senior doctors) and partly because they fear litigation. The consequence is that instead of learning from failure, healthcare often covers up failure. The direct consequence is that the same mistakes are repeated. According to the Journal of Patient Safety, 400,000 people die every year in American hospitals alone due to preventable error. That is like two jumbo jets crashing every day or 9/11 happening every few days. In the UK, too, the numbers are shocking. Until healthcare learns to respond positively to failure, things will not improve.

But let us return to children. One of the seminal mistakes in education in the 1970s was the attempt to equip children with confidence by giving them lots of successes (setting the bar very low). The consequence was that the self-esteem of kids became bound up with success, and they became unable to take risks and crumpled as soon as they hit a proper challenge.

We need to flip this approach. In a complex world, failure is inevitable. It is those individuals and institutions that have the resilience and flexibility to face up to failure, learn the lessons and adapt which ultimately excel.