“Hi, my name is Nick and I specialise in failure.”

I recently read an article on survivorship bias in the “You Are Not So Smart” website, via Metafilter. While the whole story addressed the World War II Statistical Research Group, it focused on the insight contributed by Abraham Wald, a statistician. The World War II Allied bomber losses were large, very large, and any chances of reducing this loss was incredibly valuable. The question was “How could the US improve their chances of bringing their bombers back intact?” Bombers landing back after missions were full of holes but armour just can’t be strapped willy-nilly on to a plane without it becoming land-locked. (There’s a reason that birds are so light!) The answer, initially, was obvious – find the place where the most holes were, by surveying the fleet, and patching them. Put armour on the colander sections and, voila, increased survival rate.

No, said Wald. That wouldn’t help.

Wald’s logic is both simple and convincing. If a plane was coming back with those holes in place, then the holes in the skin were not leading to catastrophic failure – they couldn’t have been if the planes were returning! The survivors were not showing the damage that would have led to them becoming lost aircraft. Wald used the already collected information on the damage patterns to work out how much damage could be taken on each component and the likelihood of this occurring during a bombing run. based on what kind of forces it encountered.

It’s worth reading the entire article because it’s a simple and powerful idea – attributing magical properties to the set of steps taken by people who have become ultra-successful is not going to be as useful as looking at what happened to take people out of the pathway to success. If you’ve read Steve Jobs’ biography then you’re aware that he had a number of interesting traits, only some of which may have led to him becoming as successful as he did. Of course, if you’ve been reading a lot, you’ll be aware of the importance of  Paul Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Jony Ive, John Lasseter, and, of course, his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs. So the whole “only eating fruit” thing, the “reality distortion field” thing and “not showering” thing (some of which he changed, some he didn’t) – which of these are the important things? Jobs, like many successful people, failed at some of his endeavours, but never in a way that completely wiped him out. Obviously. Now, when he’s not succeeding, he’s interesting, because we can look at the steps that took him down and say “Oh, don’t do that”, assuming that it’s something that can be changed or avoided . When he’s succeeding, there are so many other things getting in the way that depend upon what’s happened to you so far, who your friends are, and how many resources you get to play with, it’s hard to be able to give good advice on what to do.

I have been studying failure for some time. Firstly in myself, and now in my students. I look for those decisions, or behaviours, that lead to students struggling in their academic achievement, or to falling away completely in some cases. The majority of the students who come to me with a high level of cultural, financial and social resources are far less likely to struggle because, even when faced with a set-back, they rarely hit the point where they can’t bounce back – although, sadly, it does happen but in far fewer numbers. When they do fall over, it is for the same reasons as my less-advantaged students, who just do so in far greater numbers because they have less resilience to the set-backs. By studying failure, and the lessons learned and the things to be avoided, I can help all of my students and this does not depend upon their starting level. If I were studying the top 5% of students, especially those who had never received a mark less than A+, I would be surprised if I could learn much that I could take and usefully apply to those in the C- bracket. The reverse, however? There’s gold to be mined there.

By studying the borderlines and by looking for patterns in the swirling dust left by those departing, I hope that I can find things which reduce failure everywhere – because every time someone fails, we run the risk of not getting them back simply because failure is disheartening. Better yet, I hope to get something that is immediately usable, defensible and successful. Probably rather a big ask for a protracted study of failure!


Managing Failure, Avoiding Failure: Learning From Our Mistakes.

One thing that really identifies the best of my students is their willingness to try – they’ll take what they’ve learnt and throw themselves into unknown situations and see what happens.

Of course, to be willing to do this you either know what it is to fail and have learned not to be scared of it – or you’ve never failed before. I don’t think anyone’s defined by their first reaction to failure. Or their second…or their third… of course, all of this assuming that they were genuinely trying and preparing and (with any luck) learning and improving.

Let’s be honest – failure sucks. It’s more than the absence of success, because it’s the fact that you actually tried to succeed. Right now, I am failing in my attempt to be the first man to walk on Mars, but I’m really not all that upset because I haven’t spent all that much time on it. It’s not really a goal for me so I’m not invested in it. I’ve got some stuff that I am invested in and, if I fail at that, then that is going to suck but I’ll try to learn as much as I can from it.

I’m lucky, I’ve failed a lot but at times and in ways that haven’t wiped me out. It took me a long time to learn how to manage failure and an even longer time to work out how lucky I was that the nature of failure I experienced was so benign. So, reading this, keep in mind that I’m talking about academic marks, not ‘making a bad decision, killing two people and ending up in jail for the rest of my life’. It’s important to keep this in perspective, sometimes.

A lot of my students have a pretty good run on their way to my class. Top of their school classes, relatively comfortable background, low-crime environment, nice weather. Some of my students will encounter their first major failure while they’re with me. For some students, this is going to be shattering. This isn’t a matter of “it’s a bad report card”, it could be ‘your degree will take another 12 months.” The worst case is “you can’t study with us anymore” – but that’s a very serious proposition that’s only reached after years of underperformance.

I understand this because my first major failures happened when I hit Uni. Suddenly I had to study, I had to do things, I couldn’t get by. It took me a while to get my head around it but, in doing so, I really learnt the difference between those lecturers who could help me and those who couldn’t. I went on to succeed but I also went on to keep trying, even when I was reaching higher and my risk of failure became more severe. Here’s a sort list of the things that I try to pass on but there’s a lot more I could say on this:

  1. Don’t just say “I should have done more” identify what you should have done.
    “I will work harder” is meaningless – you’ll work harder at what? “I will start my assignments 1 week earlier” is a clear statement of what you need to do but is secretly composed of so many other assumptions. “I will review my assignments on the day I get them and add them to my assignment plan (see point 2)” starts the process but, well, it’s a rabbit hole that varies from person to person in its depth. Don’t know what you should have done? Find someone you trust, ask them and then listen to the answer (see point 4). A clear statement of what you need to do will help you to focus and, with work and luck, achieve a better result next time. It also gives you something to direct your energies towards – work out those negative vibes!
  2. Not all tasks are equal in importance, opportunity or consequence. 
    Want a degree? Then, at times, your coursework is more important that anything else. Want good marks? Then you’re going to have to move other tasks aside to make time to study for the exam. To do this, you’re going to need to plan and get stuff sorted out far enough in advance that you’re not wasting all of your spare time (that you’re trying to make) running around trying to free up the spare time (that you now don’t have). There are many platitudes around planning, and its importance, but planning properly is generally the first requirement for success. Practice it, get good at it – it almost always makes things better.
  3. Sleep isn’t optional.
    Caffeine is amazing but sleep is the real thing. Very few of us can get by with little sleep and high-level mental activity generally needs the right amount of sleep, on a regular basis. Not sleeping for ages and taking caffeine tablets just makes you jittery and stupid. Believe me, I know. Sleep makes you less grumpy, more mentally agile, happier and lets you see your real problems in their proper size. Why, I’m sleeping as I type this!
  4. Find the right person to ask about how you can improve.
    Everyone has an opinion. Some people have the right opinion. You have to work out the right people to speak to, who have the knowledge you need and can present it in a way that you can then absorb. This combination of message+medium will vary from person to person. Some people who have never failed have great empathy and can help you anyway. Some people, well, let’s just say that some people will look at you like you’re some kind of alien and how on Earth could you fail something but I guess I could suggest that you work harder because it’s important – seriously? Forget them. Mentors, role models and guides are real people with real lessons to share – find someone authentic. Not everyone has to have feet of clay – but a little dust on their wings won’t go amiss.
  5. Be firm but fair with yourself.
    Yes, you failed something. Did you actually try? No? Why not? Don’t say “It’s ok because I didn’t try” – if you don’t want to try, don’t play. Do something else that you really care about. Being magnificent somewhere else is always a good option! If you did try – what happened? (See point 1) Yes, you failed – don’t beat yourself but, at the same time, don’t forget it straight away either. Remember what it was that tripped you up and try to stop it from happening again. If you find yourself waking up at night, sweating, thinking about it: you’re not being fair to yourself. Obsession isn’t fair to yourself. At the same time, saying “Meh” and going round in unproductive cycles isn’t that fair either – unless that’s what makes you happy and you have the money to burn. In which case, well, have fun but try not to drag anyone else down with you because most people in your course want to pass and I’d rather that they didn’t pick up those habits from you. Nothing personal but passing students is what I try to do. 🙂

So much more I could write here but I don’t want to go on too much. Hope that this is interesting for you.