Tag: Oliver Burkeman

Turning Towards Failure

Our resistance to thinking about failure is especially curious in light of the fact that failure is so ubiquitous. ‘Failure is the distinguishing feature of corporate life,’ writes the economist Paul Ormerod, at the start of his book Why Most Things Fail, but in this sense corporate life is merely a microcosm of the whole of life. Evolution itself is driven by failure; we think of it as a matter of survival and adaptation, but it makes equal sense to think of it as a matter of not surviving and not adapting. Or perhaps more sense: of all the species that have ever existed, after all, fewer than 1 per cent of them survive today. The others failed. On an individual level, too, no matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story – no offence intended – will be one of failure. You bodily organs will fail, and you’ll die. (Source: The Antidote.)

If failure is so ubiquitous, you would think that it would be treated as a more natural phenomenon; not exactly something to celebrate but not something that should be hidden away either. In the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman visits a ‘Museum of Failed Products’ and comes away with quite a few insights into our reluctance to accept, or even acknowledge our less successful ventures.

By far the most striking thing about the museum of failed products, though, has to do with the fact that it exists as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection, a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid repeating errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives arriving every week … are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for-success – and so unwilling to invest time or energy in thinking about their industry’s past failures – that they only belatedly realize how much they need, and are willing to pay, to access (the museum of failed products). Most surprising of all is the fact that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum of failed products, over the years, have come there in order to examine – or, alternatively, have been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created and then abandoned. These firms were apparently so averse to thinking about the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.

I’ve spoken about Burkeman’s book before. There is a great chapter on the flaws related to goal setting and another on the Stoic technique of negative visualization, but they all come back to the concept of turning towards the possibility of failure.

The Stoic technique of negative visualisation is, precisely, about turning towards the possibility of failure. The critics of goal setting are effectively proposing a new attitude towards failure, too, since an improvisational, trial-and-error approach necessarily entails being frequently willing to fail.

So what does it all mean? If avoiding failure is as natural as failure itself, why should you embrace it (or even attempt an Antifragile way of life).

… it is also worth considering the subject of failure directly, in order to see how the desperate efforts of the ‘cult of optimism’ to avoid it are so often counterproductive, and how we might be better off learning to embrace it. The first reason to turn towards failure is that our efforts not to think about failure leave us with a severely distorted understanding of what it takes to be successful. The second is that an openness to the emotional experience of failure can be a stepping-stone to a much richer kind of happiness than can be achieved by focusing only on success.

It’s almost jarring how simple and sensical that is, considering our aversion to failure.

Accepting failure is becoming more conversational, even if we’re a ways from embracing it. ‘Learning from our mistakes’ has become the new business mantra, replacing ‘being innovative.’ Although, I can see this quickly losing its shine when the mistake is idiotic.

Burkeman notes, it’s just too easy to imagine how the Museum of Failed Products gets populated (it is also worth noting that successful products have a lot to do with luck.)

Back in Ann Arbor, at the museum of failed products, it wasn’t hard to imagine how a similar aversion to confronting failure might have been responsible for the very existence of many of the products lining its shelves. Each one must have made it through a series of meetings at which nobody realised that the product was doomed. Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of failure; perhaps someone did, but didn’t want to bring it up for discussion. Even if the product’s likely failure was recognised … those responsible for marketing it might well have responded by ploughing more money into it. This is a common reaction when a product looks like it’s going to be a lemon, since with a big enough marketing spend, a marketing manager can at least guarantee a few sales, sparing the company total humiliation. By the time reality sets in, (Robert) McMath notes in What Were They Thinking?, it is quite possible that ‘the executives will have been promoted to another brand, or recruited by another company.’ Thanks to a collective unwillingness to face up to failure, more money will have been invested in the doomed product, and little energy will have been dedicated to examining what went wrong. Everyone involved will have conspired – perhaps without realising what they’re doing – never to think or speak of it again.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is an eye-opening look at how the pursuit of happiness is causing us to be more unhappy than ever.

Goal Induced Blindness

In 1996 a disaster of historic proportions happened at the peak of Mount Everest. In the entire climbing season of 1996, fifteen climbers died. Eight of those deaths took place on a single day. Journalist and mountain climber Jon Krakauer captured this story in his breathtaking book Into Thin Air. Krakauer didn’t just uncover the story after the fact, he was on the mountain that day.

You would think that by now Everest would have become such a commercial expedition that anyone with sufficient money and a little climbing ability could make it to the summit and back. While that’s largely true, it’s not that unusual to hear of people dying. The 1996 disaster was different. Aside from the number of people dying on the same day, it was inexplicable.

The weather on the summit can kill you in the blink of an eye. Weather changes everything. Only the weather on this day was no different than usual. No sudden avalanches pushed a group towards death. No freak snowstorms blew them away. No, their failure was entirely human.

Into Thin Air puts part of the blame on the stubbornness of Anatoli Boukreev, a Kazakhstani climbing guide. While there is some evidence to support this claim, most climbers are,  by definition, stubborn and arrogant. Despite this, disasters of this magnitude are rare. There was something more at play.

We’ll never know for sure what happened, but it looks like an example of mass irrationality.

Only 720 feet from the summit, in an event that has since become known as ‘the traffic jam,’ teams from New Zealand, the United States, and Taiwan, representing 34 climbers in total, were all attempting to summit that day. Their departure point was Camp 4, at 26,000 feet. The summit was 29,000 feet. Those 3,000 feet are quite possibly one of the most dangerous spots on the planet. As such, preparation is key. The Americans and New Zealanders co-ordinated their efforts. The last thing you want is people walking on each other, impeding a smooth progression up and if you’re fortunate, down the mountain. The Taiwanese climbers, however, were not supposed to climb that day. Either reneging or misunderstanding, they proceeded on the same day.

Now the advance team also made a mistake, perhaps from confusion about the number of climbers. They failed to secure safety ropes at Hillary Step. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if there were not 34 climbers trying to reach the summit at the same time. As a result of the ropes not being laid, progression was choppy and bottlenecked.

The most important thing to keep in mind in any attempt at Everest is time. Climbers have limited oxygen. Weather can change in a heartbeat, and you don’t want to be on the summit at night. If you leave Camp 4 at midnight and things go your way, you might be able to reach the summit 12 hours later. But, importantly, you also have a turnaround time, which depends on weather and oxygen levels.

This is the time that no matter where you are, you’re supposed to turn around and come home. If you’re 200 feet from the summit and it hits your turnaround time, you have a very important choice to make. You can attempt to climb the last 200 feet, or you can turn around. If you don’t turn around you, increase the odds running out of oxygen and descending in some of Everest’s most dangerous weather.

In this case, the teams encountered a traffic jam at Hilary pass that slowed progression. They disregarded their turnaround time which had just passed. American Ed Viesturs, watching from a telescope at Camp 4, was in disbelief. ‘They’ve already been climbing for hours, and they still aren’t on the summit,’ he said to himself, with rising alarm. ‘Why haven’t they turned around?’

On that day and with those oxygen supplies the last safe turnaround time was two o’clock. Members, however, continued on reaching the summit upwards of two hours past this time. Doug Hansen, a postal service worker from the New Zealand group, was the last to the summit. It was just after four. While he made it to the top, the odds were against him ever coming back.

Like seven others, he died on the descent. Descents are normally difficult and prone to mistakes: you’re tired, oxygen is low, and you drop your guard.  In this case, the weather added another variable. A blizzard had come in quickly. Going down was nearly impossible.  Rescue workers saved as many people as they could but the -40 temperatures, blizzard, and darkness combined to make the elements too strong.

The death toll on Everest in 1996 was the highest recorded in history. And we still don’t clearly understand why. Chris Kayes, a former stockbroker turned expert on organizational behavior, has an idea though.

Kayes suspected the Everest climbers had been ‘lured into destruction by their passion for goals.’ They were too fixated on achieving their goal of successfully summiting the mountain. The closer they got to their goal, he reasons, the harder it would be to turn around. This isn’t just an external goal. It’s an internal one. The more we see ourselves as accomplished climbers or guides, the harder it is to turn around.

“In theology,” writes Oliver Burkeman in, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,  where a version of this Everest story appears, “the term ‘theodicy’ refers to the effort to maintain belief in a benevolent god, despite the prevalence of evil in the world; the phrase is occasionally used to describe the effort to maintain any belief in the face of contradictory evidence.”

Borrowing from that, Chris Kayes termed goalodicy. He also wrote a book on it called Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mount Everest Disaster.

In the corporate world, we’re often focused on achieving our goals at all costs. This eventually reaches the status of dogma.

This insight is the core of an important chapter in Burkeman’s book, The Antidote:

[W]hat motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present. ‘Uncertainty prompts us to idealise the future,’ Kayes told me. ‘We tell ourselves that everything will be OK, just as long as I can reach this projection of the future.’

We fear the feeling of uncertainty to an extraordinary degree – the psychologist Dorothy Rowe argues that we fear it more than death itself – and we will go to extraordinary lengths, even fatal ones, to get rid of it.

There is an alternative, of course. Burkeman argues that “we could learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty, and to exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future.” (In fact, this is the strategy Henry Singleton, one of the most successful businessmen ever, pursued.)

Burkeman argues that a lot of our major life decisions are made with the goal of minimizing the “present-moment emotional discomfort.” Try this “potentially mortifying” exercise in self-examination:

Consider any significant decision you’ve ever taken that you subsequently came to regret: a relationship you entered despite being dimly aware that it wasn’t for you, or a job you accepted even though, looking back, it’s clear that it was mismatched to your interests or abilities. If it felt like a difficult decision at the time , then it’s likely that, prior to taking it, you felt the gut-knotting ache of uncertainty ; afterwards, having made a decision, did those feelings subside? If so, this points to the troubling possibility that your primary motivation in taking the decision wasn’t any rational consideration of its rightness for you, but simply the urgent need to get rid of your feelings of uncertainty.

Goals Gone Wild

The goalsetting that worked so well in (Gary) Latham and (Edwin) Locke’s studies, … had various nasty side effects in their own experiments. For example: clearly defined goals seemed to motivate people to cheat. In one such study, participants were given the task of making words from a set of random letters, as in Scrabble; the experiment gave them opportunities to report their progress anonymously. Those given a target to reach lied far more frequently than did those instructed merely to ‘do your best’. More important, though, (Lisa) Ordóñez and her fellow heretics argued, goalsetting worked vastly less well outside the psychology lab settings in which such studies took place. In real life, an obsession with goals seemed far more often to land people and organisations in trouble.

The General Motors Example

One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. Following Latham and Locke’s philosophy to the letter, executives at GM’s headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallised in a number: twenty-nine. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.

Yet the plan not only failed to work – it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended – and thus more uncertain – research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles.

When we reach our goals but fail to achieve the intended results we usually chalk this up to having the wrong goals. While it’s true that some goals are better than others, how could it be otherwise? But the “more profound hazard here affects virtually any form of future planning.”

Formulating a vision of the future requires, by definition, that you isolate some aspect or aspects of your life, or your organisation, or your society, and focus on those at the expense of others. But problems arise thanks to the law of unintended consequences, sometimes expressed using the phrase ‘you can never change only one thing’. In any even slightly complex system, it’s extremely hard to predict how altering one variable will affect the others. ‘When we try to pick out any thing by itself,’ the naturalist and philosopher John Muir observed, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’

Turning Towards Uncertainty

What would it look like to embrace uncertainty?

For this Burkeman turns to Saras Sarasvathy, who interviewed forty-five “successful” entrepreneurs. Saravathy’s findings are surprising. She found a disconnect between our thoughts on entrepreneurs as successfully pursuing a goal-oriented approach and reality.

We tend to imagine that the special skill of an entrepreneur lies in having a powerfully original idea and then fighting to turn that vision into reality. But the outlook of (Saras) Sarasvathy’s interviewees rarely bore this out. Their precise endpoint was often mysterious to them, and their means of proceeding reflected this. Overwhelmingly, they scoffed at the goals-first doctrine of Locke and Latham. Almost none of them suggested creating a detailed business plan or doing comprehensive market research to hone the details of the product they were aiming to release.

The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur, “isn’t vision or passion or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between yourself and some prize.”

Rather, it’s the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.

Underpinning Sarasvathy’s “anti-goal” approach is a set of principles she calls ‘effectuation.’

‘Causally minded’ people, to use Sarasvathy’s terminology, are those who select or are given a specific goal, and then choose from whatever means are available to make a plan for achieving it. Effectually minded people, on the other hand, examine what means and materials are at their disposal, then imagine what possible ends or provisional next directions those means might make possible. The effectualists include the cook who scours the fridge for leftover ingredients; the chemist who figured out that the insufficiently sticky glue he had developed could be used to create the Post-it note; or the unhappy lawyer who realises that her spare-time photography hobby, for which she already possesses the skills and the equipment, could be turned into a job. One foundation of effectuation is the “bird in hand” principle: “Start with your means. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Start taking action, based on what you have readily available: what you are, what you know and who you know.” A second is the “principle of affordable loss”: Don’t be guided by thoughts of how wonderful the rewards might be if you were spectacularly successful at any given next step. Instead — and there are distinct echoes, here, of the Stoic focus on the worst-case scenario — ask how big the loss would be if you failed. So long as it would be tolerable, that’s all you need to know. Take that next step, and see what happens.

Burkeman concludes

‘See what happens’, indeed, might be the motto of this entire approach to working and living, and it is a hard-headed message, not a woolly one. ‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning,’ argued the social psychologist Erich Fromm. ‘Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.’ Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is a counter-balance to our modern belief that happiness is only a click away.

Inspired by brain pickings

Oliver Burkeman: The Power of Negative Thinking

“Think Positive.”

That’s what magazines and friends advise us to do in order to cope with the stress of the holiday season.

That’s the same advice that Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, was dispensing six decades ago. It turns out that thinking positive might not be the best way to cope with our stress.

In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman argues that we should explore an alternative to the “think positive” mantra: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed “the negative path to happiness.” The heart of this approach is to embrace uncertainty.

Burkeman writes in the WSJ:

This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.

Albert Ellis, who died in 2007, rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers: sometimes the best way to address the future is to focus on the worst-case scenario, not on the best.

Seneca the Stoic was a radical on this matter. If you feared losing your wealth, he once advised, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ ”

To overcome a fear of embarrassment, Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I’m an easily embarrassed person, so in the interest of journalistic research, I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn’t verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely.

Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called “the premeditation of evils”—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms “defensive pessimism.” Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.

The Antidote is a series of journeys among people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. What they have in common is a hunch about human psychology: that it’s our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy.

The Power of Negative Thinking

An insightful piece by Oliver Burkeman on the folly of the all-positive thinking movement and its rejection of the possibility of failure. “The psychological evidence, backed by ancient wisdom, certainly suggests that it is not the recipe for success that it purports to be.”

The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.

Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.

From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.


Still curious? Oliver Burkeman is the author of the forthcoming book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Also, check out David Rakoff’s Half Empty.