Why you should take a positive attitude to failure

Illustration by Spooky Pooka

The idea of learning from your mistakes may sound like a cliché, the kind of glib adage you’d expect to hear from abundantly sideburned 1970s football managers. And let’s be honest, how many of us can say we genuinely use our failures as tools for learning?

How often have you meticulously, dispassionately sifted through the wreckage of a disastrous run, isolating what precisely went wrong before formulating a plan to correct the issue? And how often have you put it down to ‘just one of those days’ and quickly buried the unpleasant memory as deep in the lowest reaches of your grey matter as you could possibly shove it? This may have been a mistake.

For his latest book, Black Box Thinking: the Surprising Truth about Success, Olympian and award-winning author Matthew Syed studied how successful individuals and organisations deal with – and bounce back from – major setbacks, looking everywhere from the aviation industry and healthcare, to education and, of course, sport.

He did so to investigate the theory that successful individuals and organisations have a healthy and robust attitude to mistakes and what’s known in business parlance as ‘sub-optimal outcomes’. According to Syed and this Black Box Thinking theory, failure, if harnessed correctly, can provide the surest path to success. And the good news is that he believes running is ideally suited to benefit from the application of Black Box Thinking.

Ditch the ego

Black Box Thinking begins with the notion that the key to success is a positive attitude to failure, interrogating errors as part of a future strategy for improvement. ‘It’s about trying to improve by looking at the gap between what you currently understand about a problem and what you could understand by leveraging the information contained in the gap,’ says Syed. ‘Keep narrowing that gap between where you are now and where you could potentially be.’

The first step in the process of embracing Black Box Thinking is overcoming ego; only then can you explore the theory’s more sophisticated aspects. ‘If you are used to succeeding and your ego is bound up in your success, failure can feel pretty devastating because you haven’t learned the psychological tools to engage with failure to help you improve,’ says Syed.

He contends that in our running, as in our general lives, our egos tend to make it difficult for us to admit our mistakes and accept our failures. ‘We are worried about the external repercussions. What that means is that we push the information about our mistakes deeper underground and conceal it. That’s a massive problem.’

The good news for runners is that Syed believes ego is less of a barrier in sport than in other walks of life. ‘Ego is significant in sport,’ he says ‘but people find it more difficult to spin their errors. Winning and losing is clear data, so the clarity of the data has a very profound effect in reducing the danger of ego from spinning mistakes. There’s a good relationship between clarity of data and people having the right mindset. Eventually you will confront a realisation. That’s why I love sport, because ego can’t stand in the way too long.’

For many of us, it’s hard to see past the negative aspects of failure, but embracing the label and even broadening its definition increases our opportunity for improvement. Most failure can be given a makeover, notes Syed, yet forward-thinking organisations have a system geared to take advantage of these learning opportunities. ‘Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity and resilience,’ he says.

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Learn from everything

To demonstrate the point, Syed highlights differing attitudes to failure between the aviation and healthcare industries. ‘In aviation, they learn every day,’ he says. ‘It’s not just the accidents – 99.9 per cent of aviation mistakes don’t lead to accidents, but even those tiny near-miss events are big learning opportunities.’ The aviation rulebook is based on lessons learned from every incident, however small. Consequently, the accident rate for major carriers in 2014 was just one in every 8.3 million take-offs.

Failure in healthcare, however, is stigmatised. Mistakes are erased in a culture of fear, blame and repercussions; as a result, the system stagnates. Syed found that in the US, preventable medical error in hospitals was the third-biggest cause of death –the equivalent of two 747s crashing daily. And it has been estimated that 12,000 deaths a year are preventable in NHS hospitals.

Syed highlights one healthcare success story in which a shift to a Black Box-oriented approach to error transformed performance. Replicating an initiative implemented in Japan on the Toyota production line, staff at Seattle’s Virginia Mason hospital were encouraged to file ‘Patient Safety Alerts’ when they spotted an error. The hospital could then make small but crucial amendments to everything from prescription to care protocol. The results were startling: Virginia Mason is now regarded as one of the safest hospitals in the world and has seen a 74 per cent reduction in liability insurance premiums.

Put into a running context, that means it’s not just the devastation of, say, failing to finish a marathon that should be fed into the Black Box for analysis; it’s every aspect of every session in which the result is ‘sub-optimal’. Don’t let your ego or negative associations with the word put you off broadening what you define as a ‘failure’. Such failures shouldn’t be defined and judged purely on severity. Even missing a split target during a training run can be significant and should always be seen as a learning opportunity.

According to Syed, leading Black Box Thinkers know how vital failure is to their success, and they’re comfortable recasting those failures in a positive light. ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots,’ Michael Jordan said in a famous Nike ad. ‘I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.’

Another prime Black Box Thinker Syed admires is David Beckham. Vilified after his sending off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, Beckham worked to redeem himself and three years later he scored the last-gasp free kick against Greece to secure the draw that sent England to the 2002 World Cup Finals. That success was, in Beckham’s view, built on failure. ‘When people talk about my free kicks, they focus on the goals,’ he told Syed. ‘But when I think about free kicks, I think about all those failures. It took tons of misses before I got it right.’

Jordan and Beckham are just two of a huge number of successful Black Box Thinkers in the sporting world. ‘Take Rory McIlroy,’ says Syed. ‘The first time he was in with a chance of a Major, leading the Masters in Augusta (2011), he fell apart. He had a horrible round and started hitting the ball all over the place. Watching the recording back, he saw he was rushing shots and wasn’t relaxed.

‘So McIlroy created a psychological strategy based on what he learned from that catastrophic final round. He decided that if he was ever again in the lead of a big tournament, he would talk to his caddie between shots, chat about football and life in general. Then, 30 seconds before the shot, he would arrow in. This would mean he’d have no time to panic. He won the next major title. That’s a Black Box Thinking approach.’

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Marginal gains

Once you have redefined ‘failures’ as opportunities to improve, it’s time to get scientific. Painstakingly deconstructing performance down to each integral component to unearth deficiencies is known as the ‘marginal gains’ approach, which was famously implemented by Sir Dave Brailsford as he led British Cycling and Team Sky to global domination. ‘In sport, marginal gains, that basic idea of having a very big problem and breaking it down into small parts to establish what’s working and what isn’t, is most significant,’ says Syed.

From making sure their cyclists slept on the same mattress each night, to reducing infection risks by using antibacterial hand gel, and vacuuming hotel rooms prior to the arrival of their riders, Team Sky’s attention to the detail of each component added up to significant improvement. As Brailsford said to Syed, ‘Each step may be small, but the aggregation can be huge. We were getting a deeper understanding of each aspect of performance. It was the difference between trailing behind the rest of the world and coming first.’

For example, say you run a good 10K time, but your split for the final mile was your slowest; in that case a dissection of your marginal gains could make your next 10K time a great one. Find out what caused the slowdown by interrogating everything from a change in routine, to your warm-up and pacing, to lack of concentration, poor hydration, diet, fatigue or form adjustments you made owing to injury. ‘People think it’s exhausting to think about success at such a high level of detail,’ Brailsford told Syed, ‘but it would be far more exhausting to neglect doing the analysis. I would much rather have clear answers.’

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Numbers game

With running so rich in data availability – from distance and splits, to speed and heart rate – systematic performance analysis may seem a daunting task. But Syed emphasises that we’re privileged to have such crucial data. ‘It just gives you more opportunities to build,’ he says. ‘It’s better to understand the problem and to be able to build up systematically. In running and cycling the clear and objective metrics make it much easier to deconstruct the numbers to learn.’

And running has another advantage when it comes to the application of Black Box Thinking: we can do it frequently. ‘In certain areas of life, the relationship between an action and its consequences are very delayed, so you don’t get that swift feedback and don’t learn as fast. The joy of running is that you can receive quick feedback from every run. As soon as you’ve finished you can analyse what worked and what didn’t, and think, “What can I tweak?”. Then, whether it’s a race or a weekend long run, there are opportunities to put issues right. Instant reward and gratification also help runners move onwards, fuelling motivation and banishing failures to the past.’

It’s not only your own mistakes and experiments that you can learn from. Members of running clubs and groups can consult one another to discuss related problems. ‘If you can create a social dynamic where people are sharing best practices, or what went wrong, you’ll learn from the feedback others are getting, as well as your own,’ says Syed.

Being part of a group of runners can also help you utilise another facet of Black Box Thinking, the pre-mortem. This concept, which explores why a plan may go wrong before it’s put into action, encourages individuals to voice concerns, as opposed to stewing over them internally for fear of sounding negative.

For runners, this may mean potential hurdles, such as problematic weather conditions, fatigue, a lingering niggle, hydration or even kit scenarios that could lead to failure. Syed discovered that taking this approach increases by 30 per cent people’s ability to identify the reasons for future outcomes. While analysing performance in detail is an effective technique, you must be aware that insight often also means taking a step back and seeing the big picture. As a Black Box Thinker, you can’t allow your focus on one component to become detrimental to another. For example, ignoring a nagging injury to do extra speedwork so you can develop a PB-grabbing finishing kick is a bad idea.

‘That’s very important,’ says Syed. ‘Where you concentrate and isolate one effect, the problem is you forget about others. You need to be strategic. Black Box Thinking requires a patient understanding of specific issues, but without neglecting the bigger picture.

Is it about the big picture or the small picture? It has to be about both.’ Syed sees elements of this bigger picture element of Black Box Thinking in his analysis of Dame Kelly Holmes’ achievements at the 2004 Olympic Games, where she took gold in the 800m and 1500m. ‘Kelly had suffered injury after injury,’ says Syed. ‘And most of her injuries were caused because she was such a competitive person and wanted to train hard. But she recognised that her ambition was holding her back because she was overtraining and breaking her body. Ignoring injuries, a stress fracture or a bad back would then ruin her season. In 2004, she had injuries, yet she recalibrated, trained smarter, focused more on nutrition and slept better, so she had a different approach before winning those golds.’ That, again, is Black Box Thinking in action.

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Beyond fear

Interestingly, research shows that very young children have no fear of failure at all. Negative attitudes to failure develop as we get older. They are honed in our schools and once with us they’re hard to shift. But that doesn’t mean you can’t apply Black Box Thinking as you get older. ‘You can get everybody over to the Black Box side,’ says Syed. ‘There’s no age barrier to start learning from errors. In fact it’s probably smarter to be a Black Box Thinker as you get older, figuring out how to adapt one’s training to the constraints placed upon it by an ageing body.’

For Syed, if there’s one figure who epitomises the power of Black Box Thinking, it’s inventor James Dyson. What many people don’t realise, Syed explains, is that Dyson was not the first person to come up with the concept of the cyclone vacuum cleaner. But he was the one with the resilience to learn from multiple failures until a solution emerged. ‘It’s those individuals or institutions that are capable of learning from mistakes that succeed in the most incredible way,’ says Syed. ‘James Dyson had 5,126 prototypes that failed. It was the 5,127th that succeeded. That isn’t a problem unique to vacuum cleaners, that’s how success happens in every walk of life – tweaking, failing, learning and changing before eventually getting there.’


Black Box Thinking: the Surprising Truth about Success is out now and is also available as an ebook.