My good friend failure

17:00, Apr 19 2014
derek handley
DON'T BE AFRAID: "Almost every fear in life that I know of stems from the fear of failure in some form or another," says entrepreneur Derek Handley.

Van Halen, one of the richest, hairiest rock bands to have graced a stage in the 1980s, used to attract a mountain of scorn for insisting that all the brown M&Ms be removed from the bowl as part of their contract 'rider' for staging a show.

If one of those brown chocolate sweets was found backstage, the band reserved the right to not play but still get paid. 

For years, they were thought of as the ultimate jerk rock stars. David Lee Roth, the band's animal print-loving former lead singer, revealed the true purpose of the demand in his autobiography. Van Halen was the first real stadium-rock band, he said.

"We'd pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors, whether it was the girders couldn't support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren't big enough to move the gear through.

"The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function ... And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: 'There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.'" 

So if the band went backstage and saw brown M&Ms in the bowl, the whole production had to be rechecked, because it meant not every line of the contract had been read, and a technical error could be literally life-threatening. 


Rather than being an example of the vanity of the music world, brown M&Ms were a test for error, notes journalist and author Megan McArdle.

"If you need people to really be committed to doing things exactly right, then build little checks - call them 'quasi-normative error' tests - to make sure that they're actually following the process."

A 'quasi-normative' error is one of four types McArdle describes in her new book The Up Side of Down, which claims that learning to fail well can lead to success. These four error types were hit upon from research conducted by sociologist Charles Bosk, in the do-or-die world of surgery.

The others are technical errors (for example, nicking a blood vessel), judgement errors (delaying operating) 
and normative errors (not washing your hands beforeinserting an intravenous line - clearly wrong). 

Technical and judgement errors can usually be minimised by gaining more experience. But normative errors suggest a trainee surgeon is not fully committed to the system of learning and caring for patients, says McArdle.

For all the agreement that it is a normative error, for example, some health workers seem to treat washing their hands before inserting an IV as a quasi-normative error - "something that can be safely skipped depending on the circumstances".

The odds that one slip will cause an infection are extremely low, she writes, so it's tempting to skip washing your hands sometimes. But, "over thousands of repetitions, this kills people".

McArdle, a Washington-based financial journalist and commentator, got to understand firsthand the horror of medical error when her mother was rushed to hospital with a ruptured appendix.

Even in the best emergency room in the city, she witnessed a cascade of errors that left her mother in excruciating pain and at real risk of death.

The 'action checklist', borrowed from the airline industry, is now a well-known tool to help health professionals from forgetting vital steps in keeping people alive. 

"The problem is enforcing them on doctors - which is a cultural and institutional issue, not really an issue of 

The good news is that her mother is fine. But failure, whether of the medical or financial or life variety, can make us better professionals and wiser people, as long as we do it well. And while some people may be genetically gifted in bouncing back, learning from an experience and avoiding disaster in the first place, McArdle was surprised to find how much of this can be learned.

"You really can get better at thinking of challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than a referendum on your worth as a person - and that, in turn, makes you both more likely to take on challenges, and more likely to come out of them stronger and more capable." 

So how do we avoid catastrophe when trying to succeed? By giving ourselves permission to badly suck at something and by not risking too much on a gamble.

A third rule is being prepared, and willing, to recognise that we've failed. "You take a calculated risk, and then you ruthlessly stop the things that don't work. One important way to do that is to set a timetable and milestones for evaluation. That way you have less chance of fooling yourself," she says. 

Knowing how to fail well is particularly useful for entrepreneurs. "The problem is that becoming an  entrepreneur is really an incredibly stupid thing to do. Most entrepreneurs fail."

Pair an entrepreneur who has already founded at least one thriving company with an experienced venture capitalist, and she or he still has only a one in three chance of succeeding a second time. Entrepreneurship needs well-oiled markets and clear 'cultural rules' about trust and commerce.

"When the most moral actions are also the most likely to be rewarding, it's relatively easy to keep the system working. When they're not, the whole system tends to fall apart."

Through her book, McArdle tours some of the byways of failure and success. For example, how it often takes 
a crisis to force us to change. She took on a job at The Economist despite it paying a third of what she'd been expecting as a consultant, because she was in debt and had few other options. It was her best decision ever, of course.

Then there's not recognising sunk costs; what she dubs 'groupidity' - doing something stupid because others think it's safe; "bending the map" - making reality conform to expectations rather than seeing what's there; and the all-too-common failing of confirmation bias - recruiting evidence for any theory you come up with.

McArdle, who's more often than not on the libertarian side of arguments, though she's far from doctrinaire, is 
a perhaps surprising fan of one New Zealand invention to help ease us through mistakes: accident insurer 

When its weaknesses are pointed out - politicians controlling levy and payout levels, its no-fault nature perhaps instilling a more lax attitude to health and safety - she still thinks it's a bargain.

"Comparing it to a system like the US, where most people who have something bad happen aren't compensated, and then a lucky few - not all of whom have actually been injured by the party who pays - get huge amounts of money from a lawsuit? Yes."

The US system of medical liability, by comparison, is "truly insane".

McArdle notes that the poor, in general, have fewer chances to recover. Poverty is a combination of bad
luck and individual choice, she agrees.

"The point of the book is emphatically not to argue that folks who fail badly deserve it; just to argue that we should try, as individuals and as a society, to fail better."

Poverty is a trap that can be escaped by changing one's behaviour, "but in various ways, poverty makes those behaviours harder for the poor than they are for the middle class who were born to them".

Research shows that unemployment is the one negative life event - compared to layoff, divorce or the death of a spouse - that we don't get over in time. We stay miserable. In general, the more generous the We stay miserable. In general, the more generous the unemployment benefits, McArdle writes, the longer it takes to find another job.

"The important thing is tothink of unemployment policy in the 21st centuryprimarily as a way of getting displaced workers into other jobs as quickly as possible - and not, as it was conceived in the 20th century, simply shielding them from the temporary privations of a cyclical slowdown."

And in teaching people that failing is an everyday part of life, we should start them young. To instill resilience, praise your children for their effort rather than achievement or ability.

But don't pretend that ability doesn't matter, because children know it's a lie. 

"What you're trying to do is acknowledge ability while emphasising that it's not enough. Because in the real 
world, it isn't." 


Derek Handley: New Zealand entrepreneur, speaker, author, Sir Richard Branson cohort and Virgin Galactic

Failure is sometimes just bad execution. At other times, it's that the idea is too big or the timing is just wrong. The ability to identify which it is and learn from that can lead to real success in your next adventures, be it a new business you're planning to start or a personal goal you're reaching for.

Take the online betting business I started in 2000, the year before [mobile marketing company] The Hyperfactory was born. We called it 'Feverpitch'. I started it in December and wanted it to be up and running for the start of the Super 12 season.

On paper, it was an entirely ridiculous notion - something so new that most people didn't really even get it. We started it to break new ground.

By late 2002, barely in time for its second birthday, Feverpitch was dead as a dodo. But it did give me something - the validation that I really could spot patterns. As a vision, as an idea, it wasn't dumb; the problem with Feverpitch was its timing and execution. 

Through this, I learned valuable lessons that I applied to The Hyperfactory, as well as to the design of my own life. 

Every failure gives you a new insight about yourself and the world that is far more profound or impactful than the 
negative consequences of the failure. You just need to look really hard for it.

Almost every fear in life that I know of stems from the fear of failure in some form or another: the fear of failing to win somebody over, to be perceived as intelligent, to cope with a loss or heartbreak, to not come across as boring, foolish or too reckless, prudent, arrogant, ambitious or lazy.

Being afraid of failure is actually one of the most common failures.

If fear of failure prevents you from pursuing your dreams or designing your life or business the way you want it to be, you may never attain your goals and experience the true happiness and success that comes from this.

Failure shouldn't be looked at as something to be ashamed of - it shows that you're able to try things that aren't easy. While embracing the good in failure is okay, that doesn't mean we should be setting ourselves up to fail. 

But at the same time, if you're not pushing hard enough, then you're not really dreaming hard enough, either. 

Sometimes life is about doing the wrong thing at the right time and what you get from that can be far more profound than what you might get from doing the right thing at the right time. 

Open yourself up to the possibilities of failure: walk towards your fear, and then fail fast, fail forward - in the right direction. But never be afraid to fail.

Sunday Star Times