It was late into the evening and I was well into my training run. I was listening to my typical list of podcasts, Talk Ultra, Hardcore History and Ultrarunnerpodcast.com when I came across a Freakonomics podcast episode titled “Failure is Your Friend”. This episode in particular left me shaking my head. I know what you are thinking. What is Dave doing listening to an economics podcast? Is Dave Proctor really that intelligent? To that I answer that one doesn’t need to be smart to be curious. Economics plays a key role in everything we do: finance, politics, lifestyle choices and yes even ultra marathoning!
During this episode they discussed the pros and cons of failing. They focused the discussion on the fatal Challenger launch in which red flags were ignored eventually leading to the catastrophe only seconds after lift off. If only we could peek around the corner and unveil any roadblocks on any project to see if it’s designed to fail or to learn how one might fail without going through the trouble of actually failing.
Gary Klien is a Cognitive Psychologist and author of “Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights“. He studies decision making and how people make decisions in real settings. Klien states the Challenger incident has been intensely studied and serves as a wonderful object lesson and what we saw here was a repression of consequences you would rather not deal with because it would have been so inconvenient. There is a general reluctance to quit because of the stigma of failure but we regularly put the blinders upon our face and step off the cliff even when we know very well things will not end well.
Post-mortems are commonly conducted let’s say after the death of a hospital patient to acquire information about what went wrong and to benefit the general population and advise others about how to proceed in the next event. In a perfect world we would have a crystal ball that we could look into the future, see what went wrong and fix it or deviate plans before disaster strikes and this is what Klien calls a Pre-mortem. Essentially a Pre-mortem is a process in where you attempt to figure out what will go wrong before it goes wrong. It’s a way to temper overconfidence because let’s face it, as ultra runners we tend to be way too gunghoe at the beginning of training plans or planning race schedules.
Let me talk you through a Pre-mortem as it would relate to Ultra racing.
You will need to find a calm quiet place. Maybe get a warm glass of tea or throw a blanket over your legs. Be in a relaxed state of mind but not too dreamy. You will need a note pad and a pen.
You are looking into a crystal ball. You are in the middle of a 20 week training plan to get you ready for your “A” race. So you have about ten weeks to go and…oh no…that’s not good, you see an image in the crystal ball and it’s a very ugly image. Now you can see you in the middle of your race and boy that’s not a pretty image and it’s obvious that this will be a failed effort, in fact it’s down right sad. Yep, it definitely doesn’t look good and now you see in the the crystal ball 2 weeks after your race that it was an absolute failure. Things went so bad that when you walk past another runner you can’t even make eye contact. It went that bad.
Now, for the next two minutes I want you to write down all the reasons why this failed, we know it failed, it’s obvious to everyone but why do you think it has failed?
The 2 minutes are up. Put down your pen. Congratulations, you have now started a constructive conversation you can have with your coach, running mates or simply yourself. It’s called perspective hindsight and it’s a way to temper overconfidence by facing potential failure and you are now forced to ask yourself what are you willing to do to avert failure that you hadn’t thought of before to try to make it more successful. The pre-mortem exercise liberates people who might otherwise be afraid of looking like a pessimist or inadequate because you are now asked to think about failure. Now the demand characteristic is to show me how smart you are. Show me if you can identify things that we need to worry about.
I know it sounds simple and obvious but I ask you how often do you do something like this. Or do you often do as I do after a fail, put on your blinders and later wonder “How did I not see that one coming?”