Why Fixating on Failure Can Kill You

Paul Berggren
3 min readJan 7, 2021

If you know 10 people who’ve made a New Year’s resolution, you’ve heard 20 reasons why they did not follow through on health, wealth, or other noble goals. If you know 10 addicts who’ve make plans to change, you’ve heard 30 reasons why they failed to succeed and 10 people to blame for their failure. If you know 10 politicians… You get the idea. One thing they have in common is lots of talk about what they want to be right while focusing on what could go wrong.

Shooting Past Failure

It turns out actually focusing on strengths is where we actually grow and gain traction when faced with serious challenges. For some this may be counter-intuitive because our culture is so oriented toward fixing things. On the other side, study any highly successful and happy athlete and you’ll find a habit of reinforcing personal and team strengths in spite of problems crashing around them.

Michael Jordan commented on how much fans touted his number of points scored in a game. Instead of bragging about how many time he scored, Jordan pointed to all the attempts that failed. He out shot his competitors and ended up with more baskets overall. By focusing on the shots that went in, he could push through all the shots that missed. He also was known to highlight the number of assists by his name that helped others on his team succeed.

Tunnel Vision

Michael Duhigg tells a compelling story about how pilots handle crisis situations in his book Smarter, Faster, Better: the Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. In short — what pilots focus on in a crisis will result in a safe return to the ground or kill the crew and a lot of innocent people.

In studying black boxes of in-flight crises, researchers discovered a common and all too familiar pattern of those planes that crashed. He described it as “cognitive tunneling” that was triggered when diagnosing each problem on the plane and their causes. In the process, they missed key signals of pending catastrophe and crashed. Focusing with tunnel vision on what was not working killed them.

K.I.S.S. and Live to Tell

On the planes that landed safely or with limited harm to life or plane, the pilots went to the same strategy of diagnosing the problem, but then quickly shifted to what was still working. From that point on, they stayed aware of what was failing, but spent most of their time problem solving ways to make use of the one working engine, how to turn the plane with the remaining flaps that still function, and so on. These flight crews lived to tell their story and return most or all of their passengers home to their families.

These pilots, like us, have at least two big choices to make when facing a crisis or a chronic on-going problem that never seems to end. We can fixate on failure and risk crashing in a ball of flames, or try to figure out how to MacGyver your way to get out alive.

For those starting off the New Year with a resolution to improve their lives in some way, or the addicts trying to get their lives together and keep it going longer than a week, or a month or the politician who wants to restore civility to public service — take a moment to grab hold of what’s actually working for you. It could save your life!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve crashed and burned enough in 2020. I’m ready for a MacGyver year. Are you in?

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Paul Berggren

I help people listen and learn from each other. As President of Crown Global HR, I bring clarity to growing and hiring people.