Ruth C. Carlos
2019-2020 ARRS President
What does success look like? If your path resembles mine, success represents the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the waterline lie all the failures, big and small. The height of the iceberg indicates not the number of times we fail, rather the number of times we rebound. A few examples of failure:
5126: The number of prototypes that Jim Dyson required before he arrived at his bagless vacuum.
Nine: The number of years that Steve Jobs poured funds into a money-losing endeavor now known as Pixar before he finally convinced the world of CGI’s impressive capability.
Five: The number of times that Henry Ford declared bankruptcy prior to founding the company we know today as Ford Motors.
Each of these examples shares a common path, namely perseverance and resilience to try again.
Failure is big business, and it has gone global. The Failure Institute and FailCon, among other settings, help us dissect the anatomy of the above entrepreneurial failures in order to teach others. An array of comparable lessons is centered particularly around Silicon Valley, where the failure rate is considered acceptable at 90% for all ventures. Applying a similar perspective and understanding allows us to contextualize our failed endeavors and to move forward. When we are too close to the failure, we feel anger, disappointment, and shame. But failure gives us proper perspective on success. Failure reframed is an opportunity to learn, practice coping and strategic skills, and build resilience.
For you Star Trek fans (and I know there are many), the Kobayashi Maru and the need for failure of Starfleet cadets when they are tested is featured prominently in the origin stories of the characters. Any sports competitor knows that failure happens all the time, every day in practice. The key to success rests in developing appropriate responses to each failure.
As a group, we radiologists are risk-averse, practicing in an environment where errors have the potential for significant consequences. We are not used to the discomfort of failure, the discomfort of judicious risk-taking. When I asked my high school-aged niece what failure is, she replied, “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t done anything.” Every meaningful endeavor starts with taking a risk. Success requires vulnerability to failure, forcing us to take that initial step toward the cliff’s edge and then another measured step off. Not allowing ourselves to fail denies us the opportunity to develop professional and emotional resilience that helps us through other challenges, like burnout.
In high school students, frustration tolerance predicts GPA, standardized test achievement, and college progress. Grit, another facet of resilience to failure, predicted retention of novice teachers in low-income schools. In other settings, low frustration tolerance has been cited as a primary cause of procrastination, preventing us from constructively addressing unpleasant situations or relationships and unhealthy lifestyles.
“Not allowing ourselves to fail denies us the opportunity to develop professional and emotional resilience that helps us through other challenges, like burnout.”—Ruth C. Carlos
As a society, we have not been kind to those who have failed. However, excessive punishment for failure stifles innovation and creativity. Instead, we must reward those who fail thoughtfully and move forward.
Ideal post-failure phases exist. A period of grief and despair occurs, where we are first overcome by the fact that we did not succeed, a state acutely difficult for radiologists who tend toward overachievement. Although experiencing failure may be physically and emotionally traumatic, it does present an occasion for reflection. In the next phase, we transition from the fail event to conceptualize the next iteration of ideas that then lead to forming, identifying, and exploring new options. The final phase institutionalizes the process of overcoming failure into the organizational culture. We must make innovation, failure, and its analysis the path of least resistance. We must make sharing lessons fun, fast, frequent, and forward-looking.
Like peanut allergies, the process of failing upward benefits from desensitization, serial exposures to build immunity. Those of us in mentoring roles provide risk-taking opportunities that allow failure in a supportive environment when the stakes are more manageable. These are managed learning opportunities to mitigate the fear of taking on bigger and bigger challenges. As organizational leaders, we must acknowledge and judiciously share our failures with our teams, even if the failure is not related to the current work. Doing so makes us more relatable, more trustworthy, and better mentors. It also allows us to expand our horizons, while honing our problem-solving skills. Ultimately, acknowledging our own failures makes us more tolerant of failure in others, allowing us to better support each other.
It is a privilege to serve an organization like ARRS that is nimble, innovative, and creative. We have achieved much together because we are willing to fail. I leave you with this quote from Samuel Beckett: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I urge all of you to go out and fail better.
The opinions expressed in InPractice magazine are those of the author(s); they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or position of the editors, reviewers, or publisher.