Experimentation and failure are at the heart of science and technological developments. Being open about getting things wrong and learning from these mistakes is particularly crucial in the world of healthtech, when innovating badly can cost lives. Knowing how to ‘fail fast’ or ‘fail well’ is a big part of the iterative design process of health and care technologies. However, despite failure being the theoretical ethos of scientific knowledge, we generally see few negative results published in academic journals and a lack of transparency about clinical trials results. This bias towards positive findings has pushed some academics to lobby for the creation of journals of negative results. Unfortunately, these initiatives do not always last like the journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine which ceased in 2017. So even science (including life sciences and medicine) has a somewhat of a complicated relationship with failure.
I’m particularly interested in the topic because I think it’s something that we don’t talk about enough, despite it being such a universal experience. I have often felt paralysed by our societal bias towards perfection and feel that I wasted a lot of time stressing out about getting things wrong or failing. And whenever things did go wrong, well, let’s say, I was very poorly equipped to deal with it. I’ve definitely gotten better at being resilient and dealing with these situations, but I think it’s key that we: (a) realise that it is a universally crappy feeling to get things wrong & it happens to everyone all the time (b) share learnings from failure and (c) understand how to become more resilient.
I decided to devise a questionnaire about failure, learning and resilience and put it out to the One HealthTech community and on social media. I asked some pretty darn personal questions about people’s feelings when they fail, their biggest mistakes, life learnings and what resilience means to them. The responses I got were so deep, honest and full of wisdom.
Making mistakes is a part of life and a big component of how we learn - some have even estimated the optimal amount of failure to improve learning. However, admitting that we’re wrong can be painful. Performing a sentiment analysis on the responses to the question “How do you feel when you make a mistake?” revealed overwhelmingly negative feelings about getting things wrong. The words were 88.9% negative. Making mistakes seemed to elicit feelings of embarrassment, debilitated confidence and anger. It touches something quite deep in every one of us and truly shakes our egos.
(word cloud based on your responses)
We don’t really get explicitly taught about failure and how to bounce back from it. However, it’s important to talk about it to understand and learn from it. I remember seeing examples that helped to slowly change my perspective on failure, like Professor Johannes Haushofer’s CV of Failures. I found it reassuring to see that not everything happens seamlessly and that behind everyone’s CV there is also a story of forgone opportunities.
Although failure can be seen as a fundamental part of success, it is actually really hard to learn from one’s own mistakes. This is particularly true when we face facts that contradict our deep-seated beliefs as highlighted by Prof Tali Sharot’s research. It is definitely more tempting to sweep them under the rug rather than facing them and truly learn from them. Prof Ayelet Fishbach explains that this is because our ego gets in the way of learning. In an almost primal survival instinct to avoid pain, our egos push the memory of failure aside or crystallise it in a way that makes it very difficult to go back and objectively learn from it. Fishbach’s research has actually found that we are much better at learning from other people’s failure rather than our own because it doesn’t hurt our egos. Failures should be shared so that we can all learn.
Delving into the responses about people’s biggest mistakes made me realise how similar some of the feelings and experiences were to each other and allowed me to pick out some patterns. The most common type of mistake that was reported was forgone opportunities. These ranged from not taking a year out to travel, or not pursuing a different career path, to much deeper emotions like feeling that they “didn’t fulfil [their] my potential”.
Biggest mistake: “Not working hard enough at school, so I missed the experience of university and didn’t fulfil my potential which changed the course of my life”
Second to this was lack of self-confidence and self-worth. A few respondents mentioned that not “having confidence in [their own] my ability” had been a big inhibitor in trying to seize opportunities or in simply trying to be themselves. Related to this was the fear of what others might think, which many respondents reported as their biggest mistake. Caring too much about what others think because of a desire to project an image of strength, a desire not to show vulnerabilities or “weirdness” inhibited their actions .
Biggest mistake: “When I was 32 I had cancer and I spent too much time being independent and not accepting the help that friends and family wanted to give me. I was too focussed on showing that I could cope and there was nothing wrong with me.”
A few respondents also mentioned an aversion to risk. The fear of the unknown or getting things wrong had been such that it constrained them to make choices that felt safe, although these might be frustrating to them. It seemed that the safety of risk aversion made them feel neither particularly positive nor particularly negative, but just ok.
Biggest mistake: I “feel like I settle for mediocrity”
Some respondents also mentioned that they wish they had better instincts and had known how to better discern whom to trust or when to trust others.
There was a lot of positivity in the responses about people’s biggest life learning. A sentiment analysis of the responses showed overwhelmingly positive language (99%). Despite the diversity of experiences the respondents described, some common themes emerged. The most prevalent theme was the importance of self-confidence and not being afraid to recognise and trust their own abilities or “gut feeling”.
“Biggest life learning: You should never fail to fully credit yourself when you've done a totally awesome job - even if it doesn't come off as you'd hoped”
The respondent’s answers also reflected that their ability to bounce back from hardship or setbacks has been a key component in building their self-confidence and internal strength.
“Biggest life learning: I'm much stronger and capable than I ever realised, that you can do almost anything if you put your mind to it, and that from adversity often comes strength (but that does not always remove the pain the adversity brings.).”
“Biggest life learning: I can make it through anything. Losing my house, dreams crumbling, family dying, hopefully coronarecession. I learned this by surviving and finding solutions each time something sent me to the bottom. I feel like it’s something you can only learn and feel confident about through experience. Before then it’s just theory.”
Many respondents also noted the importance of other things such as self-awareness, patience (“we cannot have everything when we want it and how we want it at all times”), therapy or not comparing yourself to others because “we all come with different contexts and are in different stages of life with different priorities.” Another pattern that emerged from the responses which I thought was particularly relevant to a community like One HealthTech is the importance of human connections. As one of the respondents put it, one of the biggest life lessons they’ve had is “the power of community, bringing people and the world closer together”.
The consistency with which resilience was defined by respondents really struck me. Responses almost unanimously mentioned that it’s about the ability to “bounce back from setbacks” or when things do not go as planned. Many respondents viewed resilience as a “way of life” or “state of mind” and an essential skill to be taught. It’s about pushing past mistakes and “not giving up”. According to some respondents, resilience is about trying to decouple the pain (and hurt ego) from people’s self-esteem. It’s not because people make a mistake or fail that they are a failure, although their ego might feel that way. As one of the respondents highlighted: “you are more than your failures or hardships (whether they were your fault or not)”. This ability to try and dissociate the ego from the situation seems crucial to learn lessons from failure as transpires from Fishbach’s research.
(word cloud based on your responses)
A few of the respondents reflected that people’s ability to bounce back depends on their self-confidence and circumstances. They highlighted the importance of recognising that a lack of resilience could be due to the strong determinisms or discrimination that some people face. These can hinder a person’s capacity to have full agency over their actions and fully be ‘masters of their own destiny’. Like many things, the discourse around resilience needs to be nuanced.
To leave you on a musical note about resilience, someone in their response reminded me of this song Tubthumping (I get knocked down) by Chumbawamba.
*This blog was based on research that I did and my reflections on a survey we sent out to our community for OHTweek. We got 21 responses back.
By day, Ele is Director of Research at Reform & Curator of the OHT London Hub by night. She has a passion for policy & healthtech, all things small (because they’re just too cute) and organisation (she was quite popular amongst her friend’s parents when she was a teen because she used to clean/organise her friends’ rooms - weirdo!).