Planning to fail: Why every doctor should be seeking failure

We hate failure! Yet, planning to fail is a necessary pre-requisite for success.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
6th Jun 2018 • 6m read

Tim Kennedy is a fighter.

An almost unbeatable UFC champion, martial artist, and special forces veteran, Kennedy has stated, time and again throughout his colorful career, that he has one big goal in life—to become impossible to kill.

Strange as it may be, Kennedy’s goal to become the world’s most unkillable man has landed him a reality TV show that deliberately sends him into many peculiar and downright terrifying situations. As the show host of Hard to Kill, he orchestrates the most dangerous events that could potentially happen in common situations—such as fighting a fire on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean—just to find a way to get himself out of it (don’t do this at home, kids).

Kennedy’s death-defying antics aren’t his only peculiarity. A jiu jitsu master and serial UFC champion, Kennedy actively looks for ways to face defeat just so that he can overcome it. He spends most of the year searching for jiu jitsu fighters who are stronger than himself and visits them with one goal in mind—to lose. Kennedy relishes the loss because he knows that, with each loss, his bar is moving a notch higher and his skills are being sharpened just that little bit extra.

Eschewing the bland goals that the rest of us hold so dear (I want a raise, I want a holiday house, etc.), Kennedy willingly seeks out a battle that the rest of us avoid at all costs—the fight for failure. Failure feels bad. We’ve all been there. The knee-jerk response to failure is to try to avoid it and live our lives seeking feel-good wins. We choose the jobs that we know we’ll be good at, the lifestyles that will bring us the most comfort, and the social circles that keep us in our well-defined bubbles.

For that reason, people like Kennedy are few and far between. It may be tempting to write off Kennedy as an outrageous character with too much time on his hands, but a closer look tells a different story. Here, we have a man who is actively looking for ways to fail so that he emerges as the ultimate winner. His enthusiasm for finding opportunities to fail, despite his champion status, has already moved him beyond the 99% of competitors who would slack off after reaching the heights of their profession.

Instead, he continually and deliberately finds ways to control failure so that failure ultimately doesn't control him.

Controlling failure

As physicians, we are trained to avoid failure at all costs. When treating patients, that’s a noble and necessary goal. But that fear of failure starts to seep into the rest of our lives, preventing us from taking the risks we need to grow.

We become too comfortable with the status quo and stop searching for ways to challenge ourselves. In doing so, we stunt our growth and lose the opportunity to function at our maximum capacities. A goldfish, living within the confines of a safe fishbowl, will always remain small and will likely die if not given the space to reach its maximum size. Similarly, the environments in which we work, live, and play are all proverbial fishbowls that dictate our growth, or lack thereof.

In his popular TEDx talk, Bill Eckstrom illustrates the dangers of living within our comfort zones using the Growth Rings model.

Eckstrom explains that there are four types of environments that we operate within—stagnation, order, complexity, and chaos. The bottom rung, stagnation, represents an environment where growth is completely stunted. Such an environment requires you to follow too many steps, receive too many permissions, and completely stifles creativity, independent thought, and risk. Sound familiar?

The opposite of stagnation is found in environments where chaos reigns. This is also a low-growth zone where there is zero predictability and zero control over outcomes. Like stagnation, chaos stifles growth but in a different way—the complete lack of structure creates an environment where you are too busy putting out fires to focus on lighting them.

Between stagnation and chaos lies a happy zone marked by order and complexity. Order is the zone where most of us live (or aspire to be). This is the land of almost complete predictability. These are environments where doing what you’ve always done gives you what you always got. It gives you security because you can always expect the same results—a stable salary, a paid mortgage, and a managed career progression. This breeds comfort which, although desirable, is the complete antithesis of growth. Order is the Trojan horse that promises happiness yet delivers mediocrity. Why? Because growth can only happen in a state of discomfort. Like Kennedy, who deliberately seeks out people who can give him a black eye, we need to seek experiences that are uncomfortable enough to kick us out of mediocrity and into a state of perpetual growth.

Eckstrom proposes that this pursuit of discomfort leads you into the zone of complexity. He argues that complexity is merely a state of altered order, where circumstances have changed just enough to make you uncomfortable. This discomfort makes you receptive to new learning experiences and ultimately more adaptive to changing circumstances. Resilience is a hard-won skill and choosing to let discomfort into your life is, ironically, a more comfortable way to strengthen yourself.

Read that again. Choosing discomfort is a powerful habit to cultivate. Why? Because complexity can come about in one of two ways—either it can be thrust upon you (as it was for Bill Eckstrom when he was unexpectedly fired from his six-figure executive job) or you can control the level of complexity you bring into your life so that it doesn’t catch you by surprise.

Choosing your battle

On March 2, 1955, a young girl boarded a bus to get to school. In 1950s Alabama, the law so stated that if a bus was full and a white person was getting on, Claudette Colvin would need to offer her seat and move to the back of the bus. Until then, Colvin had complied. But on that day, a full nine-months before Rosa Parks made her famous stand (or seat, rather!), 15-year-old Colvin decided to stay put. With that single decision, Colvin (and Parks) defied order and moved the entire country into a state of complexity, fundamentally changing the way the country operated.

Both of these incredible women chose their battles. They knew there would be terrible consequences, but they sacrificed the predictability they were used to (as horrible as it was) to send the entire country into a state of discomfort and, ultimately, help it move forward.

The battle you choose doesn’t need to be nearly as difficult, nor as profound. But these examples serve as powerful reminders that growth and change never happen in a state of predictability. The only way to break predictability is to take risks. Each risk comes with the possibility of failure and embracing your fallibility ultimately helps you turn that failure into something positive—not just for yourself, but for the rest of the world too!

The first step is to acknowledge that while your current state of order may feel good, it’s not helping you in the long-term. Once you’ve accepted this, the next step is to decide what aspect of your life you want to develop further. Let’s say you’ve been thinking about changing specialities. Your career is pretty comfortable right now and any change is going to destabilize that. If you want to take the Kennedy approach, you could jump straight into that new career, regardless of how it will destabilize your life.

A softer approach would be to start small and control the complexity that you let in—take some courses on that speciality you’re interested in, get involved with other specialists in that field, or find a way to bring aspects of that speciality into your own field. (Need inspiration? Idea sex can help!)

Set some implementation intentions to help you mitigate the risk of failure. This is a parameter that you set before you embark on something new, which outlines the conditions under which you will quit if things don’t work out. This helps you in two ways—it stops you from quitting too soon and it brings you some comfort as you embark on your journey, knowing that you have the option to go back to order if things don’t work out. You'll still grow while in that state of complexity, so it’s a win-win situation.

This process can be replicated for any other aspect of your life where growth has stagnated.

The steps are simple.

  1. Identify areas for growth.
  2. Find an activity that will push you into a state of discomfort.
  3. Set your implementation intentions.
  4. Do it!

Ultimately, choosing your discomfort and preparing for failure is a powerful way of controlling your growth and building resilience. Predictability is nice, but it’s not sustainable. Complexity will come your way, whether you like it or not. Take ownership of your own growth and choose the direction you want it to take, rather than letting life choose it for you!