When we began planning #DFTB17, I was eager to speak about failure. I’d just failed yet another college examination and was keen to describe my personal experiences. But along the way, I discovered that failure is for everyone. Here’s what I had to say:
Take home points
Failure is for everyone.
Embrace failure; you don’t need to be a Greek God or superhero to overcome failure.
Use failure; to turn pro.
Seek out failure; it’s part of a growth mindset.
Failure is just another opportunity to grow.
If you have drawn breath, you have failed.
I’m speaking here at DFTB17 because I have failed. Repeatedly.
I have objectively failed at university, medical school and several college-level exams. I have failed in the workplace. I have failed to perform to my potential in sports. I have failed to listen in relationships. I have failed to be present for my children. I have failed to care for my well-being and health.
But, failure is essential on the path to mastery.
Although I’m not a master of anything yet, my brushes with failure have led me to think and read about the science and art of what it takes to become a master, understanding the integral role that failure plays in the process. In talking about failure, I will not hark to the manufactured significance of famed athletes or teams, the red-misted stir of a battle cry, or a prolonged myopic and cringeworthy dissection of my many failures. Instead, with these kinds of narratives present in our consciousness, I will examine failure.
In their classic description of an illusory cognitive bias, Dunning and Kruger postulate that we all fail repeatedly in the mastery of anything. Firstly, we rapidly ascend Mount Stupid, failing to recognise our incompetence. Next, we plunge into the valley of despair, failing to know enough. Then, we fail and fumble along the path to mastery. At each step, we fail to assess our competence accurately.
As Ross Fisher noted in his talk, the popularly recognised Dunning-Kruger curve is not seen in this paper; instead, it is derived from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, hence:
We all fall. Failing, or “the fall”, is a universal part of the human experience. It is central to our existence across time and culture. It is an inevitable waypoint on the path to mastery. In fact, a big data project based at the University of Adelaide sought to analyse the protagonist’s emotional arc throughout Western literature, using Project Gutenberg, Artificial intelligence and machine learning. The researchers found that of the nearly 2000 works, only six trajectories occurred, one of the most popular being the “Man in hole” arc, also known as “fall-rise”. The fall-rise arc starkly mirrors the Dunning-Kruger curve inherent to mastery.
In some frames, failure is present in your life. I’m going to talk now about three things to do when failure presents itself;
First, we must embrace failure. The Greeks described the fall as a critical component of any hero’s tale; they called it katabasis (κατάβασις). Although the term can be used generally to describe “going down”, it is specifically used to describe a journey to the underworld. Odysseus, Hercules and Aeneas all visit Hades on their travels. But, in addition to a trip to their manifestation of hell, one of the critical features of katabasis is acquiring a life-altering skill or knowledge.
The heroes, on their katabatic journey downward, will almost always be accompanied by a companion. Choose a guide in the form of a mentor, peer or sidekick; they are invaluable as the road plummets. Although not distinctly the protagonist, the arcs of Hermione and Ron, Mister Spock and Gandalf all include their failure and subsequent mastery. When you embrace failure, take a guide, lest you become lost. We all need food, shelter, warmth and love. But, like all myths and legends, the failure and rise of heroes only persist because they mirror our fears and aspirations.
Let me be clear: embracing and overcoming failures doesn’t make you a hero. Nor do you need to be superhuman to embrace failure.
There’s an Edgar Allan Poe story called “A Descent into the Maelstrom” about a fisherman whose boat is sucked into an enormous whirlpool.
Down he spins into the roaring vortex, certain he will die. Then something strange happens.
In his delirium, he relaxes and, to amuse himself, makes a game out of studying how the whirlpool works. As other boats are drawn in destroyed, he notices that the pieces of junk and debris whipping by behave differently depending on their shape. Most hurtle rapidly downward, but cylindrical objects such as barrels aren’t swallowed up as quickly. The barrels linger near the top of the vortex, close to the surface.
Consequently, the fisherman lashes himself to his water cask and leaps overboard. It works. The boat continues whirling down to its doom, but he doesn’t. He sinks no further. Eventually, the whirlpool subsides. He’s back on the surface, the sky clear, the winds dying down, and a full moon is setting radiantly in the west. He’s saved himself. He embraces failure, and he survives. But Poe’s sailor does more than embrace failure; he uses it.
Most of us are embarrassed about the universal failures inherent to seeking mastery. It shames us. We reframe it and blot it from our memories and personal narratives. What is more challenging is to use failure. Ruthless self-examination, cognitive honesty, and self-awareness are processes with their roots deep within failure.
To look at yourself in the mirror and unflinchingly declare, “This is my weakness! I have failed. This experience is part of me.”
Do not flee; you will want to. Do not kid yourself; doing so is easy, and others may help.
Find some kind, honest, frank support, and lean on them. And when you do this, identify that it’s not about you.
All mastery is about the process. Your ego must be subdued, and you must analyse your failings dispassionately and with distance as if you were a colleague or objective observer. And then, with kindness and humility, set upon a course of improvement. In short, We Turn Pro.
The War of Art is a punchy, confronting book by the American author and Screenwriter Steven Pressfield.
Pressfield S. The War of Art. Black Irish Entertainment. 2011.
He wrote it because he was stuck and failing repeatedly. In fewer than two hundred sledgehammer pages, he describes repeated failure and the path towards “turning pro”. The book is pitched primarily at creative folk, but for those of us called to the vocation of medicine, it is filled with gems.
First, he says, we must overcome resistance. Resistance is any of the squillion insidious obstructions that claw at us, hold us down, and tell us we are too small, stupid, weak or inferior. Resistance diverts us into a world of past glories, hedonic exhilaration and far away from doing what we know we must do.
To overcome resistance is to turn pro.
And really, that’s all there is to it.
Turning pro is about showing up and creating the conditions to focus deeply and to be present in our work, but more on that soon.
Pressfield ruthlessly compares and contrasts the amateur and the professional.
On the one hand, the amateur over-identifies with their calling yet is paralysed by ego. They cannot act nor produce. They are fearful of the fall. The amateur focuses almost exclusively on performances, achievement and prizes.
By comparison, the professional is like a hunter; they’re not in it for the prize but for the hunt. A professional gets their hands dirty. They love their craft so profoundly they need to establish professional distance. And that’s why the professional plays for keeps. The professional focuses on technique, and the outcome takes care of itself. By toiling beside the front door of technique, the professional leaves room for genius to enter by the back.
The professional consistently establishes and maintains the conditions from which mastery can originate.
Phases of professional development
Some of the scientific literature similarly ratifies Pressfield’s views. In 2003, Ronnestad and Skovholt described the “Phases of professional development”, neatly breaking down the career trajectory into six phases. Although the study was about therapists and counsellors, their professional evolution and our own similarities are stark.
Having seen the guest list, I’m sure there’s at least one member from every group here today. So, how does this evolution occur?
Firstly, Lay people acquire some medical knowledge and care, have health discussions, and to an extent, understand science. But their boundaries are blurred, and inquiry is often focussed more narrowly, either in time or scope.
The Beginning Student is met with volumes upon volumes of theory and no practical experience. They are often disarmed by the tension between newly discovered theoretical knowledge and disempowered because they reflect on the lack of utility of their former “layperson” approach.
The Advanced Student has absorbed much knowledge, which still outstrips their experience. Consequently, their approach to care is typically rigid, with a dash of frustration with the inevitable discrepancy between patient and theory. My experience as an advanced student found me waving proudly from the top of Mount Stupid; perhaps you’re the same.
Novice Professionals – essentially speciality trainees – are developing a sense of professional self. As supervision is less intense, for perhaps the first time in their careers, novice professionals are at risk of making a decision. For some, this is scary, particularly as the complexity of cases increases. Novice professionals voraciously shed and add concepts and behaviours through phases described as confirmation, disillusionment and exploration.
The Expert Professional phase of career development involves the integration of core beliefs and values into one’s style of practice. I’ve heard this phase of professional development compared to an expert cricketer; the batsman with all the shots and knows when to use them and when to put them away. Expert professionals also develop a profound acceptance of the uncertainty inherent to clinical practice, and are clearer in their boundaries. Interestingly, Experts have often strongly internalised their early mentors, who have continuing influence over their style of practice.
Senior Professionals are in the last phase of their careers. Many of our field’s senior clinicians approaching retirement have been integral to a golden age of Paediatric medicine, especially for those among us with 40 years of experience. This development phase classically involves legacy, satisfaction, wisdom and just being.
Establishing the Conditions for Excellence
Returning to Novice professionals, one of the core habits is the imitation of seniors. I’d speculate that most of this is not entirely conscious, but on occasion, when we novices see something that resonates, we integrate it into our developing practice.
I know this worked for me and my college exams. In preparation for re-sitting, I was encouraged first by my partner and then by a senior colleague to buy some expensive leather shoes, half a size too small, and wear them to work every single day. Call them your consultant shoes, they said.
The next step was to find a professional outfit, colloquially known as an exam suit, but for me, it became a catalyst for psychological transformation.
The advice was explicit: Step 1: get shoes. Step 2: get a new suit. First, wear pants most days, then a tie (every day), and finally, wear a jacket—every day, for months before the examination.
So, every day I worked, I dressed like this—suit and tie. There were no exceptions for weekends or evenings.
As predicted, after some initial surprise that I’d shed my cartoon character scrub tops and bright purple chinos, I found people responding differently to me. With wearing a suit came a mindset of being calm, predictable, reliable, humble, organised, communicative and mature.
As you can imagine, after a week or two, my feet were aching and blistering, and I had limped to more than a handful of MET calls. But, I found my responses more considered and thorough, rational and systematic than I’d previously thought possible. None of this was actual study, of course, simply cultivating a mindset – creating the conditions – from which to establish professionalism and mastery.
And every time my feet hurt, I was reminded that the conditions for mastery were right. By the time I was due to be examined, I had worn my shoes, and my suit had become my workwear, complete with mindset. I was “showing up”, I was beginning to turn pro, and imitating experts was progressing me along the path.
And I think this begins to underpin some hallmarks of professionalism;
- Having a routine
- Establishing cognitive processes
- Utilising fundamental theory at a practical level
- Cultivating habits that establish the conditions for excellence
Of course, I’m under no illusion that I’m anywhere other than at the beginning.
Turning – and staying pro – is what we see in the excellent clinicians around us. Master clinicians who use their failures to grow an expert, evolving, broad, humble and comprehensive understanding of what it is to master the craft of medicine.
Post Traumatic Growth
Mirroring Katabasis is the recognition that with struggle and trauma may come growth. Both health and lay folk have a robust understanding of Post-traumatic stress disorder; what is less well-understood is the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG).
The pioneers in this field, Tedeschi and Calhoun, have, over the last twenty years, identified some of the conditions that make Post-traumatic growth more likely. I’m going to mention two briefly;
The first is Rumination and Cognitive engagement. Rumination tends to have negative connotations, but Tedeschi and Calhoun use the more traditional definition of “To turn over in the mind” in this context. They identified that the degree of PTG is related to rumination about elements related to the event.
This rumination is not the same as the intrusive, unwanted thoughts inherent to PTSD; instead, these are a reflective, deliberative, cognitively engaged process.
In short, thinking about – really examining – your failures is an evidence-based way to grow from them.
The other fascinating component of Post-traumatic growth is the sociocultural context, most specifically, how the people around us view, discuss and conceptualise trauma.
The best evidence is that your potential for post-traumatic growth is heavily influenced by how others respond to your experience, how much they agree and whether the group has a general model for post-traumatic growth.
This means that if your experience of talking about failure is to be told – either implicitly or explicitly – to “bottle it”, you won’t grow. This can be problematic in medicine, and if we think about Dunning-Kruger, we may see ourselves get stuck at the curve’s nadir.
Conversely, when we share our experiences and consider and reflect upon our failures, we use them to grow.
Dr. Carol Dweck has pioneered research in understanding the mind since the early 70s. She developed the term “learned helplessness” and undertook a slew of studies investigating and measuring why and how we think the way we think.
Her work has added the weight of science to Hamlet’s observation;
“[T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Shakespeare W. Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2:250.
Dweck’s ground-breaking studies have established that we all fall into one of two mindsets: either the fixed mindset or the growth mindset.
For folks of the fixed mindset, intelligence and potential are set. If you are genuinely intelligent, this is lauded for much of your formative life, and you can pretty much coast through the vast majority of formal education hoops without your pride, ego or abilities being properly challenged.
If you have a fixed mindset, when the challenges come – Dweck’s research shows – that people will refuse them in order to protect their cultivated reputation, to protect their fragile ego, rather than risk looking foolish, stupid or even not quite living up to their own opinion of themselves. In the fixed mindset, effort – and the potential failure that effort entails – is seen as a threat to intelligence and hence avoided.
But for people with a growth mindset, we can all improve. Be that our understanding, knowledge, attributes or skills. Or even raw intelligence. We can do better. No matter if you’ve started at the top of the class, middle of the pack, or at the bottom. The growth mindset means acknowledging that you could stand to know more, to be better than you are right now.
And the secret to improvement is failing. By seeking out more and more challenging problems, mucking them up, and then learning from the experience.
When we seek out failure, we grow. And best of all, the growth mindset can be imbued in us. We can force ourselves into this mindset of growth. And this is really the crux of what I’m talking about. When it comes to failure, if you have a growth mindset, it’s just another opportunity to learn.
You can hear more about dealing with failure on the always excellent EM Cases with Anton Helman and guests Sara Gray and Chris Trevelyan.
Dweck C. Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. 2006. Random House. https://www.mindsets.org
Manson M. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. 2016. HarperOne.
Irvine W. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. 2009. Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/a-guide-to-the-good-life-9780195374612