Failure to Rescue

One of the things that I enjoy this time of year is reading and listening to the graduation speeches that are delivered at universities around the country. You can usually find lots of examples of sound advice and more than one person who seems to enjoy hearing their own voice.

Recently, in what is definitely one of the top few graduation speeches I have ever read, Atul Gawande spoke about the importance of young people learning to have a “rescue plan”. Printed in its entirety in the New Yorker, the speech is simultaneously moving, insightful, and entertaining. Gawande describes how the medical establishment has begun to study the complications of surgery and patterns that exists in the postoperative mortality rate. The scientists who study these patterns refer to patients who succumb to a complication of surgery as “failure to rescue”.

I find this terminology to be a simple, yet amazing, way to shift the focus from the nearly impossible task of preventing every conceiveable negative outcome to the more reasonable (and effective) job of recovering from the bad things that are bound to happen. Gawande finishes his speech with the following:

So you will take risks, and you will have failures. But it’s what happens afterward that is defining. A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it—will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right?—because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.

In science, the idea of learning from our failures is nothing new. In a disputed quote by Thomas Edison, the inventor stated that he never failed, but rather discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Teaching our students not to be afraid to fail is a critical skill in any field.

But, what about teaching them that failure is just the first step? Showing them that success comes from getting back up after one falls down? It’s a product of preparation and persistence. That the best tool to have in one’s repertoire is a collection of strategies and resources for dealing with those inevitable failures. It’s how we rescue success from failure that matters.

What do you think?

photo credit: dunechaser via photo pin cc

3 thoughts on “Failure to Rescue

  1. I completely agree, attitude and approach is everything.

    In practice, I think this attitude is inseparably entangled in how one personally defines failure. It doesn’t mean the same thing to any two people. In an Olympic race, an athlete can meet failure by hundredths of a second, however a disabled person can meet success by taking the first steps out of his/her wheelchair. In the classroom, one student will sigh with relief at receiving a score indicating 70% mastery, another will agonize over a 92%.

    So I agree, failure is just a first step (F.A.I.L.= First Attempt In Learning) and that getting back up is a crucial part in the process. However, to me, part of the message as an educator (or parent) also has to be in guiding the reflection of, “What did you try? Was it your best? What will you do differently now?”

    Because getting back up and taking another half-hearted swing yields no new results.


  2. Theoretically, I’m with you here Paul. You know that.

    But I think crappy #edpolicies are strangling this kind of “persistence in the face of failure” approach to learning and learners. The kinds of high stakes that our state is slapping on all things education make it difficult to see failure as an opportunity to learn. Instead, failure is an opportunity to be shamed and/or punished.

    That’s what I find so reprehensible about our state’s #edpolicy folks. They simultaneously claim to want to create schools that promote innovation but create policies that stifle the kind of behaviors that are demonstrated by innovators.

    #preachingtothechoir , right?

    This conversation would be way more fun over beer.

    ; )


  3. Great post! I couldn’t agree more. I’m excited to be giving a workshop at the upcoming FBLA National Leadership Conference at the end of this month on this exact topic. I gave the same workshop at our Illinois Northern Area Conference & the kids loved it. I love the relation to the medical field and their terminology.

    I agree with Bill that our #edpolicies make it tough for us to address this in our regular daily lessons and assesments. However, one of the great beauties of sports, extra-curriculurs, and competition in general is that they are ideal for teaching this point (which is why I think it’s a tragedy when park districts don’t keep score in games).

    As a coach and FBLA adviser, I know that we have time and great places to do things like this. I think a kid’s experience in the “extras” at school are just as important as their experience with math and science.


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