Loving our failures
If only we understand errors, violations and mistakes
DATELINE SRINAGAR BY ARJIMAND HUSSAIN TALIB
Talking about failures in many cultures is like taboo. Kashmiri society, like other forward looking societies, is bubbling with ambitions and hyper ambitions. Quest for success is all pervading. As ambitions rise, so do the costs for nursing these. Some costs sometimes are too high, not even worth the ambitions themselves.
Humans are basically designed to err. And err more frequently than do it right. We often come across youngsters whose approach to life is singularly determined by the quantum of success they achieve in life. A single failure and life goes haywire – it just cripples down. Parents play their own bit in nurturing that approach.
There are important religious and philosophical approaches to success, which a majority of people pay little attention to these days. Our general approach to failures is too judgmental, and often leaves little scope for amendments or course corrections.
Over the last few days I have been reading a book which talks about how most astonishing successes in this world have begun with failures. It is a book called “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure” by Tim Harford. Although the book doesn’t tell us something radically new or astounding, yet it reinforces how failures are ought to be taken in a stride and how successes often come after failures.
Harford exhorts to design life by what he says “making effective use of failures.” You have to design systems of trial and error, he says confidently. And then something that most of us know in our mid-life stage: that most things that succeed are built through a process of groping and adaptation, not planning.
Harford cites James Reason, a guy who believes errors to be of three kinds. First, he says, there are slips – basically doing something when you intended to do something else. Second, violations - when someone intentionally breaks the rules. Then there are mistakes—things you do on purpose but with unintentional consequences.
Most often in our normal lives we don’t pay too much attention to this analysis of errors. It is useful to make this distinction because it help to understand what was in our own hands and what was no. The understanding that not all things are in our control helps in approaching failure positively.
In most situations in our lives where we make decisions, there are an infinite number of variables which often lead to different outcomes - positive or negative. But are we as humans capable of being in control of all those infinite variables? Of course not.
Rational choice theory does not show everything, he says. So, we pick a strategy (sometimes conscious - planned - at times unrealized). But it is far from certain how we as humans can be sure of rational choice theory determining the extent of our success.
Harford then brings in Russian thinker Peter Palchinsky, who is the proponent of “smart change” when it comes to starting new things. First seek out new ideas and new things. Next, try new things on a scale small enough so that their failure is survivable. Then find a feedback mechanism so you can tell which new thing is failing and which is succeeding, he quotes Peter.
And he calls this model one of variation, survivability and selection.
The “The Just Culture” approach proposed by people like David Marx – which involves drawing an algorithm that basically asks why an error was made – is another case in point. This approach does help us analyse if the error was due to system, neglectful behavior, or purposeful behavior. This approach can help to great extent, as it considers the errors caused by all the unforeseen and unpredictable variables.
There has to be a word of caution, nevertheless. Would an algorithm analysis of errors help in preventing the same in the future? Not completely. Not all situations have the same unforeseen and unpredictable variables.
Many people at the end of reading this book would shrug off – well it doesn’t offer anything special. It is just we all hear from our moms ever since we were kids - get over it & move on.
But that is what needs to be reinforced in our lives. Realistic and measured ambitions with an ability to not to let failures overwhelm you helps greatly. So does an analysis of failures.
As humans we also be better reminded: losing sight of religion in all this would be a graver folly.
The columnist is presently a technical advisor in international development, and based overseas
Lastupdate on : Sat, 15 Oct 2011 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 15 Oct 2011 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 16 Oct 2011 00:00:00 IST
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