Plane Crashes Make Us Safer: 5 Ways to Fail Better
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
- Samuel Beckett
1. Fail Early
In his book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that failures, even when tragic, make us stronger:
“Had the Titanic not had that famous accident, as fatal as it was, we would have kept building larger and larger ocean liners and the next disaster would have been even more tragic.”
In our own lives, it’s better to fail early than to avoid it. If you fear failure and avoid taking risks, you will never have an opportunity to fail. Meaning, you will never have an opportunity to grow.
Likewise, it’s better to fail often and recognize each failure than ignore it. If you don’t pause to correct where you failed, the problem grows. Eventually, when you do fail, it takes months or years to put all the pieces back together.
In a metaphor: It’s better to fall off a five-foot cliff 10 times than one 50-foot cliff. A five-foot fall might sprain an ankle, but you’ll learn how to catch yourself after the first time. A 50-foot drop isn’t so easy to recover from.
Fail daily to avoid a big failure at the end of the year.
2. Admit You Failed. If You Don’t, It Might Kill You.
Failure is not defeat. This is incredibly important, so I’m going to write it again.
FAILURE IS NOT DEFEAT.
Failure is a teacher. Failure teaches us where the problems are and where we need to focus to fix them.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in the American classic A Farewell to Arms:
“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”
Admitting you failed isn’t easy, especially if your failure is made public. It’s humbling to say, “I made a mistake. This is what went wrong. I’m rebuilding, and this is what I’m learning.”
It’s ok to break.
It’s good to break.
If we don’t break, we won’t get stronger.
3. Rebuild at the Point of Failure
Take out your magnifying glass and investigate why you failed.
What’s the root cause?
Use the feedback to strengthen your broken parts. Deliberate insight is the filler metal that welds the pieces together so you are stronger when you encounter the same force that previously made you fail.
Failure not only makes us more resilient, it makes us smarter. We learn what hazards to avoid and where our breaking points are.
Rebuild deliberately for resilience and agility.
4. Learn from Other’s Failure
It wasn’t your plane that crashed (this time) but that doesn’t mean your projects are free from the exact same errors that caused your competitor to fail.
Use others’ failures as feedback in your own life and work. Taleb writes:
“Every plane crash brings us closer to safety, improves the system, and makes the next flight safer…”. This only happens if other companies are listening. Keep an ear to the industry so mistakes you read about don’t show up in your backyard.
If you witness a failure that is not your own, check yourself for the same defects.
5. When You Fail, Listen; The Universe Is Telling You Something
There are many success stories that begin with a missed opportunity or outright failure: if I wouldn’t have gotten fired from Company X, I wouldn’t be in the Senior position I am now at competitor Company Y. Or, if I would have gotten my dream job at Company Y, I would have never built my own Fortune 500 Company Z.
Failure triggers alarm bells. Do I fight or flee? Do I rebuild around my current career or do I rebuild to match a different team, a different company, a different city, different friends, or a different industry?
Some of us thrive when we are placed in difficult situations. If you’re always swimming to the nearest safety ring, you’ll only venture as far as you can see. You will never position yourself for a life beyond the horizon.
“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f***ing big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers … choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
― Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
The key word is “choose.” You still have a choice, even if you fail. No matter your age or experience, you have the choice to learn, walk away, or change directions.
You are in the driver’s seat. You get to choose how to (re)build your future.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt