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?