Getting the most out of failure

NOTE: I am a guest blogger at Minds On Fire. I write at Cartesian Faith about mathematics, data analysis, and management science.  Sometimes I post pictures as well. My focus here will be about applying analytical thinking to improve life skills, such as decision making and interpersonal interaction.

I read a quote the other day that said “if you are always succeeding, then you aren’t pushing yourself enough”. I think this quote captures perfectly the idea that to improve yourself, you need to go outside your comfort zone. Doing this forces you to accept that failure can occur. Few people are naturally good at everything, so it takes practice to excel. This is true of playing sports, games, writing, speaking, networking, business, etc. So go ahead and try something new. It’s not a big deal if you fail.

But wait, overcoming the fear of failure is only half the solution. Practice without learning and failure without reflection will just result in more failure. The key is to not hold yourself back due to fear of failure, while simultaneously doing what is necessary to minimize the chance of failure. This past winter I went ice climbing, and our guide was discussing the safety of knots, pointing out good knots and bad knots. He was adamant about safety and used this rule of thumb to serve as the final arbiter of safety: if I die doing this, will people say it was a freak accident or that I was stupid and careless?

While a bit extreme for every day life the same principle applies to other forms of failure. In essence did you fail despite your best effort or did you fail because you were unprepared and careless? The key to effective failure then is about preparing (education) beforehand, staying cool and observing during the activity (feedback), and thinking about what worked and didn’t work (reflection) afterward. Following this approach will reduce unnecessary failure. If you think in terms of “practice makes perfect”, the point of failure is to achieve success. Failure without improvement just leads to more failure and discouragement. So be fearless, and also be smart about failure.


Learning to be clairvoyant

NOTE: This is my first post as a guest blogger to Minds On Fire. I write at Cartesian Faith about mathematics, data analysis, and management science.  Sometimes I post pictures as well. My focus here will be about applying analytical thinking to improve life skills, such as decision making and interpersonal interaction.

People are often surprised that I’m able to predict the outcomes of events. I seem to have a knack for knowing how someone will behave in a particular situation. Imagine the shock of an employee when I return from a meeting and I ask why they did such and such while I was away!

Aside from being a fun parlour trick, the value of this form of ‘clairvoyance’ is that it can help you make better decisions and set realistic expectations for the people you interact with. This clairvoyance is actually nothing special and can be learned by anyone. It is simply an artifact of logical reasoning.

Logical reasoning and psychology

Learning logical reasoning is easy. It is about understanding when to use deduction (if a then b) and induction. The difficulty that people have is not in understanding the method but rather in coercing yourself to use the method. I have been reading Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which describes two systems in your brain that work in concert to process information and ultimately make decisions. In short, System 1 is your reactive brain, which is responsible for autonomic decisions and behavior. System 2 is your logical, rational brain. System 2 is much better at reasoning but is lazy and avoids ‘working’. On the other hand, System 1 is almost always on and is never wrong. This might sound like a good thing, but what it means is that your System 1 will fabricate stories to explain inconsistent observations! This happened to me when I was driving back to Dublin from Belfast and ended up driving 90 miles west instead of south. I kept observing all these data points that I was going the wrong way, but since I was deep in thought, my System 1 fabricated explanations to explain the data. For example, I noticed that Dublin was no longer listed on mileage signs, so I thought “must be because it’s still too far away”. I also recognized a town that was in western Northern Ireland, and I immediately thought “there must be another Enniskillen on the way to Dublin”. It wasn’t until the road ended and a sign saying Dublin was 90 miles east that System 2 was forced to wake up and start thinking.

What this highlights is that the challenge is not in comprehension but in fighting laziness, or what I call intellectual complacency. Our brains are actually wired to be reactive and not think deeply (apparently that’s what happens when your life is governed by the threat of being lion food). Our System 1 will always use assumptions and fabricate stories to explain observations. We must be vigilant in recognizing this so that we can activate our System 2.

Practice makes perfect

One way to get in the habit of activating your System 2 is by playing games of strategy. It doesn’t really matter whether it is chess, go, master mind, or even battleship (best to avoid the drinking version) as the point is that to win you must think rationally about the choices presented to you. A simpler example is tic-tac-toe. If you play this with System 1, then you won’t know in advance whether you will win or not. If you play with System 2, you know in advance at every move whether you can win or the best you can get is a tie (hint: player 1 can never lose if using System 2). Games offer a stress-free environment to flex your System 2 and try out different approaches to reasoning. It also forces you to think about the assumptions that you are making before making a decision. This is very relevant in games like chess and go, where you have to establish the modus operandi of your opponent, which informs the strategy you choose.

The other benefit of strategy games is that they help you plan for contingency. Typically you need to work through a few alternative scenarios and think about what potential countermoves your opponent will make. How will you counter the counter? Perhaps it sounds tedious, but that’s just your System 2 whining! In the end, this is the same process for understanding another person’s point of view and reasoning about how s/he will react to a situation.


The lesson here is that to become clairvoyant you should play games. In seriousness, playing strategy games will help your System 2 get out of its slumber and help you to understand the world better.