Failure and feedback

Failure is a constant. Learning from it is a choice.

Receiving feedback without fear requires a healthy dose of listening and learning. Unless we’re open to the possibility that we’ve made an error in our judgement or character, there’s little possibility for change or improvement. The first step in righting a wrong is to recognize that something is wrong: Unless we bring ourselves to acknowledge a mistake or misstep, feedback hits a wall.

There’s no feedback without failure.

In practice, this is hard to accept. As a species, humans evolved a natural defense system against threats in the environment, from saber-toothed tigers to sharp-edged feedback. We’ve become quite adept at dodging and denying uncomfortable realities about ourselves. When it comes to hard truths, we talk around them, talk past them, or don’t talk about them at all. Feedback forces us to come to terms with how others see us and how we see ourselves. And the picture is often not the one we care to see.

Failing to admit failure

What is the cost of failing to admit failure?

Charles Bosk, the late sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a set of interviews with young doctors who had either resigned or been fired from neurosurgery-training programs. Bosk wanted to know what separated the unsuccessful surgeons from their successful counterparts. Was it technical skill? Natural intelligence? Prior experience? Why did some neurosurgeons succeed while others failed?

The difference, Bosk concluded, had little to do with talent or training. Successful surgeons possessed a keen interest in understanding the causes and consequences of failure. Their failure.

Bosk went to say:

When I interviewed the surgeons who were fired, I used to leave the interview shaking. I would hear these horrible stories about what they did wrong, but the thing was that they didn’t know that what they did was wrong. In my interviewing, I began to develop what I thought was an indicator of whether someone was going to be a good surgeon or not.

Learning from failure is a choice. That’s why feedforward is such a powerful driver of fearless feedback. By shifting the focus from blame to contribution and helplessness to agency, feedforward encourages us to admit failure but immediately consider future possibilities. Bosk discovered that the best neurosurgeons embraced this fail-towards-success dynamic and treated mistakes as learning opportunities.

The people who said, ‘Gee, I haven’t really had any mistakes,’ or, ‘I’ve had a couple of bad outcomes but they were due to things outside my control’—invariably those were the worst candidates. And the residents who said, ‘I make mistakes all the time. There was this horrible thing that happened just yesterday and here’s what it was.’ They were the best. They had the ability to rethink everything that they’d done and imagine how they might have done it differently.

Failing forward

Rather than attribute failure to external causes — poor conditions in the operating room, incompetent staff support, outdated surgical equipment — successful surgeons examined the internal factors that may have contributed to their failure:

  • What could I have done differently?
  • How could I better prepare for the next opportunity?
  • Which steps lie within my ability to change?

They accepted the reality of their failure and the inevitability of their growth. By confronting failure, they minimized the possibility of its recurrence.

Imagine asking yourself these same questions the next time you receive critical feedback. Just like Bosk’s successful neurosurgeons, it’s possible to turn setbacks into comebacks. All it takes a willingness to treat failure as a teacher.

When we receive feedback we don’t like, believe or want to accept, we can either view it as a condemnation or an invitation. We can isolate mistakes and bury them forever or build on them for good. Embracing failure helped neurosurgeons save more lives — and might just help us improve our own lives, too.

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