Redefining Failure

I recently was at a TEDxManhattanBeach Salon event and a discussion between TED Talk videos prompted a response from me about failure and the need to redefine it. I had not realized that I thought differently about failure than most until it was brought to my attention with this discussion. That is part of the beauty of TEDx events, they bring very different people together to share in ideas worth spreading. So, in that spirit, I thought I would share this.

The discussion was about fear and making big changes in your life. The theme of the salon event was Work Smarter. We had watched a talk by Stefan Sagmeister on The Power of Time Off about taking a year long sabbatical every seven years rather than leaving it to the end of life in retirement.

Video courtesy of TED

It was clear that many attendees felt fear around failure and that failure is a very negative thing. The risk of change and feeling stuck were clear limits to imagining such an idea as taking a year off. The conversation turned to failure and this is when I raised my hand to contribute a comment.

“I think we need to redefine failure and change what it means for people. I would suggest that failure is not negative at all. If you are going to change or try to do anything new, it is impossible without failure. In fact, you often learn more from failure than you do from your successes when you are trying to innovate or make changes.

I would take it even a step further. I would suggest that we look at failure as a requirement for success. Success is not the opposite of failure, but failure is required for success especially if you are trying to do something that has never been done before. You cannot help but fail when you have to figure things out as you go because there is no lead to follow. So, failure really is how you figure out what does not work.  Failure is required to get to what will be successful. Innovation is impossible without failure.

I am known for saying you only fail if you quit, so make sure you can afford not to quit. Eventually, your competition will die.  If you can stick around long enough you will be the only one left. LOL Of course, it does not hurt to be good too.”

We went on to watch another talk by Stanley McChrystal called Listen, Learn… Then Lead

Video courtesy of TED

This led me to add, “Some failures are bigger than others. If we look to avoid all failures we risk big ones that have much higher consequences than if we accept failure as part of our process for success. By welcoming small failures along the way we can refine our approach and techniques to improve our chances of avoiding big failures that can kill people or have massively negative consequences.”

After the event wrapped up I was thinking about the discussion and realized that it is not failure that should be viewed as negative or even scary. Rather the consequences of the failures.

In fact, if we work to avoid failure at all costs and fear it, we risk our opportunities to workout and fine tune our approach and techniques prior to a time where the cost of failure is much higher. Gen. George S. Patton stated this as “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” inspired by an old Chinese proverb saying a drop of sweat spent in a drill is a drop of blood saved in war.

If we can welcome failure as a necessary part of a process toward success we are much more likely to better our chances of success when the risks are higher and the consequences of failure carry with it much higher costs or even death. Failure is the sweat of trying. Failure is the byproduct of the effort that brings us to a better solution or ultimately to true innovation.

Applying this to a diving context is easy and is part of the Precision Diving mindset.

It is part of our approach to accept that we are not as good as we think we are. This is the foundation of our thinking as Precision Divers. We are always trying to be better this dive than the last and better next dive than this one. If we accept this, we are accepting that failures are part of our successes and a required part of the process.

To be a better diver we have to strive for allowing for mistakes and failures to occur regularly. Ideally, while we are training and in less critical environments than when such errors or failures would have truly negative consequences. We work hard on mastering ideal breathing and creating a ritual around having it become habitual or automated behavior.

The evolution takes time and mileage. We have a lot of time in the beginning where we are not using ideal breathing. It is also why we spend time learning how to regain ideal breathing and working on recognizing when we are not using it. Accepting that this process takes time, that success comes from failures, and being better able to recognize when we are not breathing ideally is critical in reaching the ultimate goal of having ideal breathing be present no matter what we are doing. More importantly, having the choice to deviate from it when we decide it is necessary to control our diving; control rather than happy accidents.

As instructors, we need to provide the room and freedom for our clients to fail and have that be okay and acceptable. Then, we can provide the tools, techniques, and support to make those failures become successes. Often, more is learned by failing than just succeeding. We can take this one step further by arming our clients to be able to think through situations and have a mental image of where they should end up.  It can be very powerful for a client to self correct or solve their own problems without help.

Perhaps, we should consider praising failures especially when self corrected and help walk the client through the progression that occurred. At a minimum, take a close look at our own diving and how we present and react to failures from within and with our clients.

Buoyancy is a foundational skill in Precision Diving. We know it will take thirty to fifty dives for an active diver to become intuitive or automated with it, if they are lucky. It will take fully up to two years for all of the mindset and approach of Precision Diving to seat for a client. So, we need to provide repeated opportunities for clients to exercise foundational skills. It is the drills, missteps, and feedback we facilitate that help guide our clients through the process of refining their abilities and moving buoyancy control from the threshold of holding position within a few feet in either direction, to a few inches in either direction, to no movement in either direction. Over time, the client will own this awareness and begin to advance their refinements without us. Then, you know they have begun to arrive.

The more opportunities we can provide for safe failures or ones with minor outcomes, the better the outcome may be if the consequences of failure are larger. This becomes even more critical in technical diving applications where error chains are much shorter and the risk of adverse outcomes is much higher. Plus, the increased confidence derived from knowing you can solve problems and fix things as they happen only makes the possibility of positive outcomes even better. We want to make sure that every client has the full capability they can develop from their time with us. We owe it to them to help facilitate failure and learn from it while accepting it is an important part of the process toward confidence and success.

As Precision Divers we want not to fear failure or try to avoid it in our process toward ideal performance, rather we want to view it as a natural component on our road to success and innovating our own diving. This is not unique to diving, but likely a good lesson for us in all of our life. It has been for me.

8 Comments on “Redefining Failure”

  1. Jeremiah says:

    Nice Grant… Well Spoken.

  2. scubamysoul says:

    Great article. I like the diving reference, and Patton & Chinese Proverb refs also.


    Being good to my Today Self

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Linden says:

    Awesome as always 🙂

  4. geoff says:

    Failure = advancement and success (if you survive). Lack of failure, or some level of success ranging from marginal to extreme, typically results in complacency and stagnation. After all, why mess with success if something that works. Failure you survive in a rational thinking being normally results in trying something different, and hopefully better.

    In scuba diving, if the survival rate was measurably higher in the early days of the sport, the advances in technique and equipment would probably have been a lot slower and less significant. If you look at the tech diving community, with higher failure rates and potentially greater risks for failing, the advances are considerably more notable than the general recreational diving community. The same observation probably applies to any high performance endeavor compared to the more mainstream, lower risk activities, whether based on speed, elevation or pushing other parameters

    Failure without consequences doesn’t seem to result in any progress toward success. In business, if you look at GM or Chrysler, they were both failing for a long time before getting to the point of bankruptcy. They were both big enough with enough reserves that there were no consequences for continued failures. It took the economy taking a nosedive, a catastrophic disruption, to amplify the degree of their failure and make the consequences significant enough to make a difference

    • Grant W. Graves says:

      I am not so certain that business performance is necessarily the best mirror for diving performance examples, but it is an interesting point. I think diving has in it the risk reward and is complex enough as a physical activity that there is always a feedback loop on performance that helps to motivate.

      I think “failure” carries with it a big emotional context that is present in all of us in different forms and surfaces in different ways. Diving is beautiful in the fact that is provides almost immediate feedback on how you are doing. Assuming you are able to gauge it for yourself.

      I do believe that many divers get complacent and also rest on their laurels, so to speak. They stop once they feel they arrived at some point where good enough is good enough for them. We see that in most of life as you very nicely pointed out.

      For diving, the industry has not done a very good job in helping to paint a picture of what the end goal is or should look like in a simple and cohesive way. Most other places we have a pretty clear idea of what it should sorta look like if you make it to where you are shooting for or even more importantly what it means to be elite.

      I purposely did not define failure as it means so many different things for different people. Some will feel that anything that is not success is failure. Some will feel almost nothing is failure. Some will feel that any level of success that is not the highest expression is failure. So, even “success” is a form of failure for them if not at the top level. Often, this last one, the top level is built up in their mind to a place where it is functionally impossible to reach. I can keep slicing it up into more and more examples.

      The point is that based on the concepts in Precision Diving there is an inherent motivator if you “buy into the system” for acceptance that there is always something to work on. Always a way to be better and always things to examine. It is a becoming rather than an outcome. Not all will be motived by that, but a great deal will.

      What is effective is that with the advancement of confidence and ability that leads to enjoying diving more, less energy on all levels goes to pulling off the diving which is just more fun and lets you see a lot more. Plus, it does not hurt that you end up with more time to do that as well with less effort.

      I do not believe you have to have people die to improve. Death, for sure, is a motivator in helping to drive a desire to avoid it. I think with the proper mindset and approach there are intrinsic motivators that become more dominate as the abilities grow.

      But, I digress.

      Many people use fear of failure to not try. Or they have such strong emotions around failure that it messes with them. If we can view any progress forward toward any goal as avoiding failure we can get stuck. Better to view it as a process of working it out where failure is a natural part of making adjustments to a system or performance, then I think more would be willing to try. Plus, they would find some peace is the process or journey of the attempt.

      It is also acceptance that not being perfect and “messing it up” is part of the process of working toward a goal or being good at something. One and done and people and kids giving up after only trying once is not unusual at all these days. Not so new to these days either.

      Taken to a higher level when trying to do something truly innovative there is no manual or guide. So, for this to happen those trying have to be willing to figure it out as they go. If they view failure as doing something that does not work that is then abandoned for another approach or technique, then failure is an absolute requirement of the eventual success. If we do not accept that at more basic levels the same holds true, how can we expect that anyone will be ready for that at a higher level.

      When the threshold for failure becomes narrower with greater risk, we hope that the work before and the willingness to try alternatives and the ability to think on your feet may help prevent bigger consequences. If we avoid this earlier work and acceptance of failure or difficulties or whatever you want to call them, we risk believing we may be prepared for the higher level of risk and not carry with us the actual abilities to do so.

      I think it is a question of perspective. I have posted before about the risks and acceptance of risks in our sport. I think much can be learned in the middle ground where the risks are not so large and perhaps the successes are much more subtle, but for the individual possibly more profound.

      Not everyone is going to want or desire the big exposures or risks. That does not make the pursuit less worthy or important either. Internally, to that individual, it matters or it does not. I think if it does not matter they will leave no matter how they approach it or look at it. I do believe many that leave and we lose in any endeavor from giving up are unnecessary.

      So, maybe switching it up and examining how they look at what they do is enough to change outcomes and their view.

  5. geoff says:

    I see two sides to failure, whether applied to diving, business or life. On the fear of failing side, I think the dive industry has done an admirable (in their view) job of painting a picture of what the end state is – the bar has been set lower and lower to remove perception of risk, reducing fear of failing. I haven’t been diving as long as many, but looking at what was involved in getting certified in the ’90s (and from people have described for the ’80s) compared to now, it’s much harder to fail.

    The flip side of failing is lacking the common sense, training and intelligence for warning bells to go off in your head saying “warning, epic fail is imminent!” and doing something to remedy the situation. Whether it’s due to physical conditions (e.g., not in proper physical shape for the dive), equipment (e.g., diving to 200+ ft on air, like the Rouses in Shadow Divers), skills or environment, there is only so much stupidity that can be legislated to protect those who don’t deserve it, and leaving it to Darwin to take care of the rest

    Getting past the basics in terms of diving skills, when the relatively low end state skills developed to reduce fear of failing are exceeded too far from the narrow limits, the other aspect of failure kicks in, and failure occurs because of lack of fear, or realizing fear is needed. In a low risk environment, failure teaches what not to do and is at least as valuable an experience as success. As the risk level is ratcheted up, failure has greater consequences.

    There are lots of good insights on failure in business, or any other endeavor, that could be applied to diving as well. You just need to factor in risk and other variables. The real Thomas Edison quote about failed ways not to make a lightbulb applies well to diving, and is as follows: “I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.” [ref ]

    Any discussion on failure should include a forward looking perspective, based on the environment and experience of kids in schools today. Nobody fails, everyone is a winner! Maybe it works well in schools so parents don’t complain that their kid’s feelings are hurt, but I’m scared to think what kind of divers the next generation brought up with this approach to failure will become

    • Grant W. Graves says:

      Well said. Many great points in there. Re-enforces what I was saying as well.

      Some may feel like we are splitting hairs, but often times the differences are at that level. Other times, they are more obvious.

      I think what you are pointing to is balance. Too far one way or the other and you create problems. In diving, not painting a clear enough picture of where you should end up makes for people feeling great about their diving when they are not really able to do much and performance does not match belief. To the other, you get overly confident divers that make choices way beyond true capability and place themselves into situations they have no business or anyone has any business being in.

      I think both come from slightly different origins, but have the same roots and are almost the same thing just dressed up differently.

      Complacency is an additional factor and much work needs to be done on a personal level of all in any high risk activity to combat it. I spoke to it a bit in the post and will speak more heavily on the psychological aspects of Precision Diving in future posts as well.

      In the end, personal responsibility is the most powerful determinate of what will or won’t be done by a diver or any person. We can help with tools to be better, but whether the resources are used and integrated is still up to the individuals involved.

      We can debate the larger role of the industry as a whole in this, but for each of us it still comes down to what we decide to do. How we act and how we decide to work from here is what means the most and creates the biggest changes. Those changes that occur within each of us move us forward or we decide to just continue on as we have always done expecting a different result.

      Of course, the resources and tools have to be available for the diver to have access to them to have the choice to begin with. Ignorance of the available choices is a problem as well.

  6. geoff says:

    Speaking of failure, the only other blog beside this that I’ve found worth reading (and it’s about diving too) recently had a piece about failure, and how some people are so out of touch with what failure is, it becomes normal. See for another interesting read on the topic

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