“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!