The Modern Survival Guide #42
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and it’s entirely possible that I might get something wrong. But I’m trying really hard not to. As it happens, in this article we’re talking about failure… and what to do about it.
We’re all going to fail at something eventually. Hopefully we learn from it. Sometimes this failure is our fault, and sometimes not. Sometimes we could have done something differently, sometimes not. There are all kinds of failures. For this article, though, I’m going to coin a term:
Rational Failure: when you do everything right and things still don’t work out.
This article will be about what that means, how it affects you, and what you can do about it.
So let’s start with what it means to experience rational failure. There are a lot of ways to do things “right,” but when I use this term, I’m referring to a best practice — a general consensus about a standardized series of actions that usually results in a good outcome. Best practices are in place for a reason, but they’re not always going to work out.
Let’s take an example: suppose you’re playing Texas Holdem. The cards come up on the flop, and you’ve got a full house. That’s usually a winning hand. You bet rationally — you push out the players with weak hands and narrow the field down to you and another person or two for the final card. Your opponent goes all in (bets all their money); the cards don’t indicate much is possible other than a full house. There’s a very low chance they have you beat, and a high chance they are bluffing, so you call. When the cards come up, they also have a full house… and it’s better than yours. You lose, and you probably lose big.
So… what could you have done differently? In almost all cases, nothing.¹ With those cards, you should almost always play your hand like that. You lost, but in almost any other circumstance you should do the exact same thing and expect to win.
Another example: suppose you’re driving down the highway. You are a good driver. You are going the speed limit, firmly in your lane, using turn signals as appropriate. You are buckled in, and your car has airbags. You are not talking on your cell phone, throwing things at your passengers, or experiencing other forms of distracted driving. But another car jumps the median and hits you head on — it’s over in a split second, and both of you were doing 65 mph. You’re dead. Neither cars nor humans are designed to survive that kind of impact.
So… what could you have done differently (aside from not driving)? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You were a good driver, and it didn’t matter at all. In every other circumstance you should do the exact same thing and expect to get to your destination safely.
So what does this tell us about rational failure? Quite simply, that the universe doesn’t always play fair. We get through life as best we can, but there will always be circumstances beyond our control, or statistically unlikely events, that will cause the best laid plans to go astray.
This will affect you; it’s just part of life. Often a very frustrating part of life, because a lot of luck goes into rational failures. This is, unfortunately, one of the differences between statistics and luck: statistics are what will eventually happen to someone; luck is what happens to you.
It is therefore not always particularly useful to make major behavioral changes in response to situations of rational failure. This is something that has immediate implications, not only in your personal life, but in our political arena and in our news media. Knee-jerk reactions are satisfying, but ultimately may create more problems than they solve.
Evaluating Rational Failure
Once you experience a rational failure, assuming you survive, there are some steps you can consider to evaluate the circumstances and determine a proper response. The first thing you should do is figure out if it actually was a rational failure at all. Here are few ideas on that front:
- Check your actions. Did you screw up or miss a step?
If so, this may not be a rational failure at all; it might be just a normal ole’ regular run-of-the-mill mistake. This is actually a fantastic realization, from a certain point of view; it means you have an obvious, correctable error you can rectify or mitigate. Remember, the hell of rational failure is that you usually can’t do anything about it. An obvious mistake is, in many cases, a godsend.
As an aside on this point: never, ever, discount the impact of small errors. Chaos theory has a lot to say on this subject, but it boils down to this: minor errors introduced early can create big impacts later. Just think about all those long division problems you got wrong in fifth grade because you screwed up carrying the two halfway up the page.
- Were you actually following a best practice?
Best practices are tricky — they’re not eternal, and the best practice of today is the old paradigm of tomorrow. So if you’re following a best practice (like not speeding on the highway, staying in your lane, etc.) and it’s not working, it’s possible that it is no longer a best practice, or is not a best practice in that particular situation. For example, following US traffic laws in England is probably not a best practice! Best practices change based on local circumstances, so don’t expect a familiar action to always be the best action.
- Would you do the same thing again?
This is one of the simplest questions to ask and one of the hardest to answer, because of course the knee-jerk response is, “No, I’d do the thing where I didn’t fail!” But that’s a Captain Hindsight response, and hindsight is 20/20.
Answering this question properly requires insight, not hindsight. You need to be able to dispassionately consider the factors that led to failure. If you can’t think of a way in which you could have avoided those factors, given the knowledge you possessed at the time, it may be a case of rational failure.
Responding to Rational Failure
This is the hard part, the bit that most people’s instincts scream against. Once you’re pretty certain that an event was a result of rational failure, you have to be prepared to perform a risk assessment. You have to have the intellectual discipline to understand that rational failure means that it’s still a good idea to perform the action that failed — because it usually succeeds.
Let’s give an example to illustrate the problem: seat belts. Many people don’t wear ’em because they’ve heard of cases where a seat belt crushed someone’s windpipe (or something of that nature) in a car wreck. So instead they accept the vastly riskier strategy of not wearing a seat belt at all, which radically reduces their chances of surviving an accident.²
What’s going on here? Simply put, people experience or hear about a case of rational failure and make the wrong call — to disregard a best practice. This is an example of a knee-jerk response, and it actually does kill people every year.
Yes, seat belts sometimes cause injuries in car wrecks. NO, it’s not a good idea to stop wearing seat belts! What, you thought you were going to get in a wreck and walk away without a bruise, or even broken bones? That’s not how physics works, my friends, and it’s not how car makers build automobiles. Car makers build cars to be survivable within tolerances. Seat belts are part of those tolerances, and “survivable” means you survive. Everything else is gravy.
But that’s hard to accept — just like it’s hard to accept that there wasn’t anything else you could do to win at poker. It’s hard not to take a knee-jerk problem solving approach. We’re hard-wired for problem solving, and we are perfectly capable of inventing problems to solve if we do not find any readily available.
One final point on this subject: if you are in a position of responsibility, such as political office, corporate management, or other leadership positions, you should definitely prepare a public defense if you experience a rational failure. Remember that most people are perfectly happy to assume that their own failures are rational, but also assume that the failures of others are examples of incompetence. Defend yourself accordingly; in cases of rational failure you will be pressured to find and solve a problem, even if one does not exist. So you may have to create a goat.³
However, the correct response to rational failure is, in most cases, to not attempt to solve a problem. In such cases, trying to solve the problem is often a use of resources for which the gains do not equal the investment. It is, instead, better to evaluate the issue, determine that there was nothing more that could have been done, get back up, dust yourself off, and go do it all over again.
¹The only exception being if you know your opponent very well, and can see their tells!
²Remember, being “thrown free of the car” is not a good idea! I don’t care what your friend’s uncle’s bartender had to say on the subject. We’re just bags of meat, water, and calcium, and accordingly the human body does not react well to being turned into a projectile traveling at road speed. People who survive being thrown free of the car are examples of rational failure’s evil twin: irrational success. Sure, it’s possible — but it’s not LIKELY.
³That is, a sacrificial goat. A throwaway issue. A red herring. A survivable scandal. Come on, you’ve all watched House of Cards.