The Science of Failing Well | Amy Edmondson

Amy EdmondsonHave you ever felt crushed or demoralized by failure? Like it condemned you, or made you feel worthless or incapable, in your eyes, or those around you…even when you knew it was a lie? 

I think we’ve all been there at some point, staring failure in the face and feeling its harsh judgment. Maybe it was failing a test in school, bombing a big interview, being rejected by someone, or watching a business go under. We’ve all faced failures that made us question our abilities and self-worth. Those moments of doubt that make us feel like we don’t belong – to our communities, our families, or even ourselves.

But what if failure wasn’t something to avoid at all costs? What if, instead, it was a gateway to self-discovery and growth? An opportunity to find belonging by learning to first embrace the parts of ourselves that feel outcast?

My guest today, Amy Edmondson, has devoted over 20 years to studying how we relate to and learn from failure. Amy is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of the new book Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well.

In our conversation, she shares groundbreaking research on reframing failure as a tool for self-insight, rather than self-condemnation. She introduces techniques for overcoming the barriers that hold us back from belonging – to our full potential and purpose.

Edmondson also dives deep into how fostering environments of psychological safety allow us to take the risks necessary for growth and connection. She offers practical strategies any of us can use to transform failure into what she calls “intelligent failures” that illuminate the path forward.

If you’ve ever felt alienated by failure, this episode will give you hope. Join me in learning how to turn life’s difficulties into gateways of belonging – starting from within ourselves and radiating outward.

You can find Amy at: Website | LinkedIn | Episode Transcript

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photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva


Episode Transcript:

Amy Edmondson (00:00:00) – The kind of failure that we should really learn to love. And genuinely love is what we call an intelligent failure. And that’s a failure in new territory. It’s genuinely valuable because it brings you new information. There was no other way to get that information than to try something and see what happened. You have to really train yourself to say that not being right is almost as good as being right because of the value of that information. What if success means? I learned a lot today. I had insights I hadn’t had before. I had ideas that I can’t wait to experiment with to see if they work. That sense that growing and expanding what I know and what I can do is really why I’m here. So have you.

Jonathan Fields (00:00:46) – Ever felt crushed or demoralized by failure? Kind of like it condemned you or made you feel worthless or incapable, either in your eyes or to those around you, even when you kind of knew it was a lie. I think we’ve all been there at some point, staring failure in the face and feeling its harsh judgment.

Jonathan Fields (00:01:04) – Maybe it was failing a test in school bombing, a big interview being rejected by somebody or watching a business go under. We’ve all faced failures that made us question our abilities and self-worth and those moments of doubt that make us feel like we don’t belong to our communities, our families, or even ourselves can be really moments of reckoning for us. But what if failure wasn’t something to avoid at all costs? What if instead it was a bit of a gateway to self discovery and growth, an opportunity to find belonging by learning to first embrace the parts of ourselves that feel outcast? Well, my guest today, Amy Edmonson, has devoted over 20 years to studying how we relate to and learn from failure. Amy is the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and author of the new book Right Kind Of Wrong The Science of Failing. Well, and in our conversation, she shares some groundbreaking research on reframing failure as a tool for self insight rather than self condemnation. She introduces techniques for overcoming the barriers that hold us back from belonging to our full potential and purpose.

Jonathan Fields (00:02:13) – And Amy also dives deep into how fostering environments of psychological safety allow us to take the risks necessary for growth and connection. And she offers practical strategies that any of us can use to transform failure into what she calls intelligent failures that illuminate the path forward. So if you’ve ever felt alienated or dejected by failure, this episode will give you both hope and tools. So join me in learning how to turn life’s difficulties into gateways of belonging and connection and ultimately thriving, starting from within ourselves and radiating outward. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project. Really excited to dive into the topic of failure. You know, this is one of those topics where it is such a common experience. It is literally baked into the human condition from the earliest days, and yet different people experience it so differently. And in fact, the same person I would even imagine experiences the phenomenon of failure very differently depending on the season of life, the context and all sorts of different things.

Jonathan Fields (00:03:31) – So I’m excited to deconstruct this topic with you. For you, this topic also seems personal. You relate back to and I know probably there are countless times we’ve all stumbled and failed and come back. You relate this also to a certain extent back to an experience that you had as a PhD student in Harvard.

Amy Edmondson (00:03:48) – Yes. And you know, honestly, that wasn’t the worst failure I’ve ever had. It just was it was just it’s such a good example of a failure in a research context. So I couldn’t resist opening the book with that story because research or science in general or innovation in general is all about sort of getting it wrong on the way to getting it right. So that story opens the book to, yes, things will go wrong, but it kind of can still end well. And this is who I am, right? I’m someone who studies this, but also experiences it as a researcher, as as all researchers do. And the short version of that story is I was part of a larger study of medication errors.

Amy Edmondson (00:04:32) – And my small part of that larger study was to test the hypothesis about whether good teams, better teamwork among patient care givers led to lower medication error rates. Right? I mean, it’s sort of a reasonable hypothesis that if you’re really working well together, you can you can coordinate better, you can catch and correct you’re you’re just going to have better outcomes. So I did my part. My team survey that in month one of a six month study. Then over six months trained medical investigators collected the error data. Finally, six months later, I have the data. I’m going to run the correlations and lo and behold, they’re significantly correlated. So that’s good news. Until I look a bit more carefully at the sign and realize they were correlated in the wrong direction. Meaning the data were saying that better teamwork led to higher, not lower error rates, which is, you know, catastrophically failure of my hypothesis, right? Because it wasn’t even, you know, some most failures of hypotheses are that just didn’t work.

Amy Edmondson (00:05:46) – The data didn’t cooperate in saying you were right, but it rarely just comes right out and says you’re 180 degrees wrong. Now the story doesn’t end there or it wouldn’t be very interesting. I was so surprised and disappointed and scared by this failure that I, of course, had to start thinking about it like, well, what might be causing this relationship? And it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the better teams don’t make more mistakes, maybe they’re more able and willing to talk about their mistakes. Now, in retrospect, that seems so very obvious, right? The sort of good teams were comfortable with each other. We work in a really fast paced and quite challenging high stakes environment. So, you know, of course we’re going to have that level of honesty and camaraderie, but it wasn’t easy to prove. And yet I was able to collect data that suggests that was very likely the case. In subsequent studies, I was really able to test this phenomenon more carefully, and later I called that sort of climate difference, psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson (00:06:54) – So that error or that failure led to ultimately led to a very robust and full research literature in organizational behavior and in health care as well, on the role of psychological safety in helping us learn and helping us team up and helping us do challenging work, innovative work. And thank goodness I was wrong.

Jonathan Fields (00:07:19) – Yeah, I mean, it’s such a great example of you going in with a hypothesis that sounds completely reasonable on the surface, it sounds like, Well, of course this is the way it’s going to prove out. Then the data actually says no, it’s actually the exact opposite. But within that data is evidence of something else happening here. And for you that sends you on a path where you start to explore the whole idea of psychological safety, which then becomes a years long journey of experimentation and insight and sharing for you that really directs your career in a lot of different ways for a serious season of time. So I love that example and sort of like what what you draw from it. I can’t leave lingering.

Jonathan Fields (00:08:01) – What? You said just before you shared this, though, which is this is by far not the biggest mistake in my life. Are you open to sharing something that might be more akin to like, that larger thing?

Amy Edmondson (00:08:13) – I should. I need a list at the ready, I suppose, but I’ll just. I’ll sort of name some obvious ones. I, I flunked multivariable calculus exam in my freshman year of college. Right. I got an F. That is a big failure. At that point in my life. I had had one A-minus, I think, and it was painful. It was in my 10th grade something or other, you know, I mean, just like. No, right. I hope you understand. I’m not boasting. I’m saying how pathetic I was. And, you know, that’s a very big failure. It also was the case that I’d gone into the exam Underprepared had gotten an A on the midterm. So I sort of thought I was like, I could wing this.

Amy Edmondson (00:08:56) – You can’t wing multivariable calculus. So, you know, so it was a failure not just of, you know, capacity to do well on the exam, but a thinking failure that you could sort of do well on the exam without preparing very hard for it. Right? So it was, you know, utterly of my own making, even that one, which I’m not proud of, at least, you know, it started me thinking about what what’s the work you really love to do? You know, what’s the work I do when I’m, you know, don’t have to do it versus you do it because you have to do it. And it wasn’t an overnight answer to, you know, what do you really love and what are you good at? But but it started me on that path of thinking that’s an important question, you know, rather than the work you do in school to sort of look good, look like you’re smart.

Jonathan Fields (00:09:45) – Let’s zoom the lens out a little bit here, because when we have a conversation about failure, I think one of the there’s a bit of a meta question here, which is when we talk about failure, what are we actually talking about?

Amy Edmondson (00:09:57) – Well, that’s a very important question because the answer is not obvious.

Amy Edmondson (00:10:02) – And I worry about this because the category is huge. And so let me offer a definition, which is a failure is is something that worked out badly in a way you didn’t wish. Right. So it’s it’s basically the opposite of a success. It’s an undesired outcome. And now that undesired outcome could be an F on an exam, could be a hypothesis that didn’t get supported. It could be that you’re late for a meeting. That’s an important meeting. This covers way too much territory to be particularly useful as a kind of clear and compelling construct. But nonetheless, it’s an important construct for us to wrestle with because none of us like it, right? We don’t we we don’t want to fail. We want to succeed. And sometimes, oddly, kind of emotionally doesn’t matter whether that failure is tripping on the sidewalk or missing a major job promotion. It’s you know, we have a negative reaction either way. In other words, we we often are allergic to failures that are utterly unimportant.

Jonathan Fields (00:11:05) – It’s just the very notion of things not working out the way that we expected or hoped they would.

Jonathan Fields (00:11:11) – I think that leads us into potentially a spiral of doom sometimes. And I wonder I wonder about that, that personal reaction, you know, like what happens inside of us when we hit that point where things don’t happen the way that we wanted and expected them to happen.

Amy Edmondson (00:11:29) – We can feel sad. We can feel angry. We can We’re disappointed. It’s very spontaneous, Right? There’s any one of a number of negative emotions we will spontaneously feel and we can catch those. We can sort of quickly. We can learn to quickly look at them and challenge them. Yeah, it’s disappointing. So what? It’s just data, right? It’s just what is the only important question is what next? And I think, well, I think we must embrace, you know, we must learn to sort of have a productive relationship with all kinds of failures. That doesn’t mean fall in love with them, but it does mean accept them as data and figure out what next. But this is probably the most important idea in the book, is that it’s a whole lot easier to kind of embrace failures when you’ve done the intellectual work of figuring out that there are different kinds of failures, that some of them indeed, you know, flunking an exam you didn’t study for, that’s a preventable failure.

Amy Edmondson (00:12:38) – It’s a basic failure. Don’t do it next time. Again, let’s go forward. Let’s not do that again. Whereas the kind of failure that we should really learn to love and genuinely love is what we call an intelligent failure. And that’s a failure in new territory. But that’s an experiment. It’s an experiment like my research experiment. The. Didn’t work out as hoped, but it’s genuinely valuable because it brings you new information. There was no other way to get that information than to, you know, try something and see what happened. You hope you’re right, but you’re wrong. You have to be. You have to really train yourself to say that not being right is almost as good as being right because of the value of that information.

Jonathan Fields (00:13:23) – Walk me through because you introduce a framework to distinguish between three types of failure and you just sort of briefly reference two of them basic. But I want to go into each one of these in a bit more detail because it sounds like what you’re saying is one of the critical things when we are in an experience of failure is to be able to identify which of the three this is.

Jonathan Fields (00:13:44) – And that in part informs like how do we actually move through this? Start me out with basic failures. What defines a basic failure?

Amy Edmondson (00:13:52) – I call it a basic because it’s single cause. So a basic failure is it has one cause. It’s usually human error, and it’s still that undesired outcome because you make a mistake. You know, you use sugar instead of salt in the recipe. It doesn’t turn out well. There was a recipe. So the important thing about basic failures is that they take place in familiar territory and complex failures are multi causal. They are we sometimes think of them as the perfect storms. They are the failures that happen when multiple factors lined up in just the wrong way. Medical errors, which we talked about earlier, are often complex failures. You know, not there isn’t one thing that just went wrong and led to the failure. There’s a handful of things that went wrong at the same time that led to the patient getting the wrong dose. And they are still preventable, but but more challenging and complex to think about the silver lining and complex failures because they’re on the rise and they can feel very pernicious.

Amy Edmondson (00:15:02) – For example, supply chain breakdowns during global pandemic would be a complex failure. So many causes led to that. You know, chip shortages over here, labor shortages over there, storms over there coming together to create this kind of global breakdown in our supply chain. The beauty of complex failures is that they offer us lots of opportunities to have caught and prevented them. Sometimes you need all five things to go wrong at just the right time, and if you caught one of them, the whole thing would have been fine, right? So they’re complex, but they’re also they give you so many opportunities to sort of see them coming and stop them before it’s too late. And then the third kind are what I call intelligent failures. And honestly, these are the only good kind of failure. These are the undesired results of essentially thoughtful experiments in new territory. So the four criteria are genuinely new territory. You couldn’t just look up the answer on the Internet and use that. Instead. It’s in pursuit of a of a goal.

Amy Edmondson (00:16:09) – It is hypothesis driven. That is, you’ve done the homework you can do. It’s new territory, but you’ve at least found out. What do we already know about this thing I’m trying to do? And then finally, the failure has to be as small as possible, just big enough to learn from you don’t bet resources that are larger than you need to on an uncertain action. So a shorter way to say that is intelligent failure results from a well designed experiment. Got it. And that could be something as sort of mundane as, you know, a bad first date with someone that either an app or a friend thought you’d like. Right. You had good reason to think this could go well, but it didn’t, right? It’s an intelligent failure. Much better than sitting at home and never going anywhere.

Jonathan Fields (00:16:57) – Exactly. Although many people do that. Take that exact option. I’d rather not take any risk at all. Safer, Right, Exactly. And we love safety and safety and security like certainty is is the aspiration for so many people, and yet it becomes a deafening constraint in the ability to live the lives we want to live.

Amy Edmondson (00:17:17) – We have to outgrow our, you know, individually and collectively or our desire for certainty because we’re not getting it.

Jonathan Fields (00:17:24) – I mean, probably the single universal truth in life across every single being. We cannot lock down the future. You describe basic failures and tell me if I got this right. Basic failures happen in known territory like this is like we know the setting, we know the recipe. We know whatever it is. We just messed up this one thing. Complex ones. And then you describe intelligent failures as having an unknown territory. We don’t have enough information. We don’t know if this is going to work out, but we still want to make a decision and take an action also. And we we may well fail, but let’s actually try and design it in a way where even if we fail, we’re going to in some way get something out of that. We’re going to learn something that moves us forward. So that’s unknown territory, right? Complex failure. Are we operating in known or unknown territory and complex failure known?

Amy Edmondson (00:18:14) – There may be some.

Amy Edmondson (00:18:16) – You know, in all known territory, there might be some elements of novelty, but but basically complex failures happen in known territory. For example, you know, patient care setting like a hospital or a supply chain. These are known territories. That doesn’t mean there’s not variability. In fact, there usually is some variability. There might be something sort of slightly unique or novel about the situation, but it’s not a big enough novelty to sort of say, Oh, we don’t know what to do or there’s no known, you know, there’s known information or knowledge about how to get the result that you want. It’s just that it’s messy and variable and complex.

Jonathan Fields (00:18:57) – So if we have these three different types of failures, basic, intelligent and complex, how do we identify let’s say we do something, it goes sideways. And what you’re offering is it’s important to identify pretty quickly, like which one of these three we’re in, because that’s going to help us guide how we’re going to respond. What are the tells here that that allows us to quickly identify which of the three that we’re in when we are in that failure state?

Amy Edmondson (00:19:21) – For the most part, an intelligent failure.

Amy Edmondson (00:19:23) – You already knew in advance that you were experimenting, right? It wasn’t you know, you should have or could have recognized that you were in new territory. You know, you’re going on a date with someone for the first time. You’re running a clinical trial that hasn’t been written. It hasn’t been run before. So you kind of know you’re in new territory, you’re crossing your fingers, that you’re going to be right, but you might not be right. So it’s it’s probably not one. It’s rare that you’d have to recognize an intelligent failure after the fact is intelligent. But I suppose in day to day life, you might just you might not be thinking about it that way. You might be in a new city or meeting new people and somehow it doesn’t work out. Right. Right. So that might you might then remind yourself, Hey, I haven’t done this before. It’s okay to get it wrong. But the other two, I think the major distinction there is that we are prone to jumping to single cause conclusions about failures.

Amy Edmondson (00:20:21) – Right? Something goes wrong, it’s your fault or something goes wrong. Well, it was, you know, whatever, you sort of jump to it. And so you’re vulnerable to not stepping back and thinking, wait a minute, maybe there’s more to it than that. In a way, the important distinction there that needs to be made is, is it a basic failure or a complex failure? And maybe err on the side of assuming it’s a complex failure just to see, well, what were the various contributing factors? Maybe I made a mistake, but I hadn’t gotten enough sleep last night. And the reason I didn’t get enough sleep last night was, you know, something was sort of keeping me up that I was really worried about. And maybe that’s in a way it stems back to that. So just that that sort of discipline to think through what are the factors that contributed, again, always with an eye on the future because I want to do better next time.

Jonathan Fields (00:21:13) – That makes a lot of sense.

Jonathan Fields (00:21:14) – Kind of touch on this indirectly, but the role of stakes in how we experience failure because, you know, you can I look at this, I look at the three different types of failures that you just described. And I’m thinking to myself, well, if the stakes are really low, I don’t really care about any of this. But if the stakes as the stakes rise, you know, like then it becomes just incredibly important because the effect on me personally, emotionally or potentially on whatever it is, like the outcome that I wanted and whoever it might be to impact that becomes really centered. So it feels like failure. Failure is really failure when the stakes are high.

Amy Edmondson (00:21:52) – That’s a really good point. I mean, I think it’s an accurate point emotionally. We often respond to the little failures, the unimportant failures in an exaggerated way that that comment that falls flat in the meeting. Right. You trip on a sidewalk like you, you know, you feel this moment, momentary experience of shame or embarrassment when really it doesn’t matter.

Amy Edmondson (00:22:18) – In a part of the book where I talk about the stakes, I say there’s really two kinds of errors, right? And we see them both in life and in work environments. One is not being careful when there’s really high stakes here, Right. Not being thoughtful if you’re about. To wire $800 billion. Make sure you’re looking exactly at all the right, you know, and double and triple check if you’re about to operate on the patient’s right knee. Double check, please. That it’s really the right knee, not the left knee. So, you know, not there’s many, many stories of people not being cautious enough in high stakes environments. But we also have stories of people being in life like we referred to it this earlier, but being excessively cautious when the stakes are low. Right. And which is almost a lack of willingness to be playful to to, you know, to just try stuff, you know, try stuff and see what happens, you know, maybe pick up a hobby, pick up a, you know, meet new people, you know, just like the stakes are low.

Amy Edmondson (00:23:21) – You know, it’s not life and death. It’s not a huge financial risk or reputational risk. It’s like these are new or quasi new situations where you’ll have a fuller, happier life if you’re willing to try things and realize that many of them just won’t turn out.

Jonathan Fields (00:23:41) – I’m so curious about that point. You know, I’m so curious about what is going on there inside of us When the stakes really are low, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. And yet we may actually say no to even trying something because of some internal chatter that we have. Or then when we try it and it goes sideways, even though it’s a tiny little thing, it really doesn’t matter. As you describe as shame, we experience it as something much bigger than it is on a level that literally will stop us from trying or abandon the thing that some might bring us great joy had we actually stayed with it and pursued through it. So I’m fascinated. Let’s do you have a sense for what’s happening inside of us when the stakes really are low? It really doesn’t matter a whole lot.

Jonathan Fields (00:24:26) – And yet there’s something in our brains that’s saying almost telling us the stakes are much higher than they are. And that there’s something personal that is at stake, which really isn’t. And it stops us from doing these things.

Amy Edmondson (00:24:39) – I think that’s exactly right. This has been studied in various ways. You know, one is sort of research on perfectionism. Like why or because, you know, perfectionists or perfectionism lead us to want to get it right, to be perfect, even when you know, when the stakes are high, of course, but when the stakes are low as well, because our identity is wrapped up in a belief which is a faulty belief that we have to be perfect, to be loved, to be accepted, etcetera. And, you know, very related work, I think is on growth mindset and fixed mindset. And Carol Dweck describes, you know, the fixed mindset, which, you know, most of us are prone to the fixed mindset and some people painfully so where we take the results that happen as the indication of sort of our value, right? So if if I if I flunk that exam, it means I’m just bad at math and a bad person to boot rather than know I flunked that exam because I didn’t study enough for it.

Amy Edmondson (00:25:42) – You know, we have these syndromes that make that exacerbate this phenomenon you’re describing. But I think the reason why it can feel so consequential is much deeper and much dates back to our early days as a species, whereby being rejected by the tribe, by the group would literally lead us to death by exposure or starvation. Right. If you were so if the higher status folks in the group didn’t accept you and like you, you might actually be in real danger, you know, rather than danger of embarrassment, which of course isn’t real danger. But I think we are sort of hardwired to experience that as real danger because of that heritage rather than as kind of light hearted, more logical reaction to our shortcomings.

Jonathan Fields (00:26:41) – That makes a lot of sense to me. And part of what you’re describing is almost like a survival basis for this, right? But if we tease it out, I imagine part of that also is there’s there’s a social context. There’s a belonging aspect to this where we all want to belong. It is one of the basic needs and we fear that we might be cast out in some way.

Jonathan Fields (00:27:01) – I’m remembering some research that I did a number of years ago when I was working on a book on Uncertainty, where I was looking at the Ellsberg paradox. And for those listening, it’s a basic experiment where you effectively have to make a decision without perfect information on one hand, or you can make a decision based on knowing what the option is, but you don’t know if the uncertain option is better or worse than the known option. And and most people lean towards the known option, even though there’s no rational basis to do that. And I remember studying that. And then. Seeing a variation of that experiment that was performed where it was essentially the same thing. People would have to make a choice, but they were told in advance nobody would ever see their choice, that it would be completely hidden and the bias away from the uncertain option completely evaporated, suggesting that there’s a social context to this.

Amy Edmondson (00:27:55) – It’s really fascinating and very consistent with what we’re talking about and even more consistent with my work on psychological safety, right? That because it’s all about what do people think of me? I’m not saying we consciously are processing that all the time.

Amy Edmondson (00:28:10) – Like, oh, what does he think of me? What does he think? But it’s so hardwired that it’s habitual. So so we’re more willing this would suggest to be adventurous and, you know, confront and play with the uncertainty if no one’s going to know because they were more willing to sort of accept the possibility of the downside, which I think helps us find some pathways forward in this mess. Right. Because if you can sort of reframe it and remind yourself that, Yeah, mean it might not go well, like just logically it might not. But the harm, you know, again, the stakes are low and it might be fun, right? Might be more fun to learn what that uncertainty box brings.

Jonathan Fields (00:28:55) – Yeah. And I mean, reframing is such a powerful tool. And this is, you know, you describe sort of like a number of barriers to overcoming failure and then modality is to actually like actually move through this. We talked about one of the barriers, effectively a fear of rejection.

Jonathan Fields (00:29:13) – The other two also before we dive into some of the ways to actually take action around this, the three types we talked about before, I just don’t know which one it was, which would lead to a response which wasn’t really helpful or online, and the other being just an aversion to failure. I’m wondering if the aversion to failure in the fear of rejection are really the same thing, though.

Amy Edmondson (00:29:33) – They may be. I think you may have just found a logical flaw that I that I agree with as well. And the way I distinguish them is that the aversion is just a kind of very emotional response. Whereas the fear of rejection is is social. It requires other people. And maybe let’s go back to your Ellsberg paradox. You know, if the preference for certainty disappears when we’re told no one will know, then that does suggest they’re two different things, but they’re highly interrelated. I mean, our deep fear of getting it wrong, I believe is connected to belonging, right? Is connected to that.

Amy Edmondson (00:30:11) – That does not just desire to belong, but it almost a felt need to belong.

Jonathan Fields (00:30:17) – Yeah. And I feel like it also probably relates back to what you described earlier, the phenomenon of perfectionism, which has become so prevalent in culture these days. You know, it’s like good enough is never close to good enough anymore. Just doing your best and letting it be what it needs to be is people are like, Well, that’s just not okay anymore. It feels like that folds into all of this as well. I think.

Amy Edmondson (00:30:40) – It does. And I you know, I sometimes I wonder why is perfectionism on the rise in an era where we know, you know, we’re more more aware of uncertainty, more aware of of all of the things that happen to us that aren’t really under our control. And I think it may trace back to social media because we we are comparison set has changed so utterly by all of the fully curated information about other people’s lives that were that we now see. And so the discrepancy between sort of my ideal self or what I would would hope to be and other people is now greater, that.

Jonathan Fields (00:31:17) – Would be really interesting to see. I’m so curious also what the research will start to show when we start to look back at the window of the last three years and perfectionism, because it seems like when your circumstances literally will not allow us to function on that level for the vast majority of the time, you know, where it becomes normalized for us to just get through the day like that is actually success, you know, for a period of years. I wonder if that’s going to help counter this perfectionism phenomenal, or if we’re just going to snap back to like the way it was before.

Amy Edmondson (00:31:52) – It’s a great question. Oh, I think it makes me immediately think of all of the, you know, Zoom classes. We had to start teaching like a week after, you know, the real classroom classes and just getting both the technology and the pedagogy and the students, you know, to have everything sort of work or work as well as it could in such a short time, you couldn’t be a perfectionist if you were going to be a perfectionist.

Amy Edmondson (00:32:18) – In your first week of Zoom teaching, you were basically just going to have to leave your job because a lot of things were going to go wrong and did. And then you learned right? You learned that, wow, a lot of things went wrong. And I’m still here, you know? Didn’t die. And so logically, that should help us. Logically, that should help us live more comfortably with ambiguity, with imperfection, with failures. But you said snap back. And yes, I think we’re very vulnerable to snapping back and variety of ways, you know. How many times have you heard over the last few months, you know, well, back to normal or in the phrases like that, which, of course, we’re not back anywhere. We’re forward. No.

Jonathan Fields (00:33:00) – Yeah.

Amy Edmondson (00:33:01) – With with knowledge and experiences we can’t nor shouldn’t forget. The question is, are we sort of smart enough to step back and design the future more thoughtfully versus just, okay, let’s snap back and, you know, either go back to our old habits or, you know, assume all is the way it was when it isn’t.

Amy Edmondson (00:33:22) – And I think that’s an open question.

Jonathan Fields (00:33:24) – Yeah. And I’d be really curious to see how it lands. I know a lot of folks in my community, at least including myself, are doing a lot of reimagining based on the last three years, a lot of learning along the way. You talked about some of the ways that we could respond to failure and to help us like tools or processes to help us really move through them and maybe even embrace them. Reframing this one that you brought up. Talk to me a bit more about what this actually is and how to do it effectively, because I think this is a word that’s thrown around a lot comes originally from cognitive reappraisal of cognitive behavioral therapy, and it’s become very popularized in a lot of different ways. But along with that, I think there’s also a lot of misnomers about what it actually is and how to do it in a way which truly works.

Amy Edmondson (00:34:11) – I will be the first to admit I don’t have all the answers to that. And absolutely it does come from this tradition of cognitive reappraisal theory and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Amy Edmondson (00:34:22) – And the idea is that we have quick spontaneous emotional reactions to things that go wrong, that are negative and painful, and you can get stuck and you can sit with that pain. You can try to look away from that pain, but you don’t have naturally a sort of what I’ll call a productive or healthy response to things that go wrong. And reframing is in a way that the act of taking a look at it more rationally. I’m always a little hesitant to use that word, but it’s sort of like, let’s think, let’s move from the sort of a spontaneous feeling to a more cool headed thinking, right? What’s really true here that was disappointing, you know, didn’t get the job, okay, I’m not going to die. You were just having that kind of emotional reaction as if, you know, something truly terrible had happened. So it’s it’s putting it in perspective. You know, put a new frame around it where this thing is in perspective. This is inconvenient. This is disappointing. This isn’t useful information for me to figure out my next steps.

Amy Edmondson (00:35:34) – Right. It’s just shifting from that hot emotion to that cooler thinking. And that also is giving you more control over your situation or your feeling that you’re more in control of your situation because you are in more control of your situation.

Jonathan Fields (00:35:51) – That makes sense to me. It feels like we’re trying to tell the possibility story rather than the doom and gloom story. To a certain extent.

Amy Edmondson (00:36:00) – Yes, it is. It’s and so that’s a creative act, right? So reframing was describing it as kind of analytical and cognitive, but it’s also creative because first there’s this pause and like, what’s really so? And then there’s the what if and what else and what next. And those are creative questions. And you are giving yourself, you know, the power, the agency creativity to come up with answers to those questions.

Jonathan Fields (00:36:28) – Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. What’s your take? And I wonder whether this falls under reframing or this is something else entirely in the world, in the startup world, especially when sort of like lean startup methodology was really hot.

Jonathan Fields (00:36:43) – One of the core tenets of that approach was to create a shift in the metric for what you’re striving for. And basically the shift was we are not running this experiment. You know, it’s all about iteration, like small things over time to chunk the stake so we can actually move quickly. But the really big psychological shift that I saw in that movement was away from the core metric being success and shifting and swapping in the core metric being learning. So like every time you went through an iteration, the question wasn’t did I succeed or fail? The question was, did I learn something from it? Right. And I’m wondering whether that’s a completely different thing or whether you think that kind of falls under reframing in some way.

Amy Edmondson (00:37:29) – I think it’s reframing because you’re essentially reframe the experience as one of bringing data that are valuable rather than one of bringing evidence that you fell short. Right? And both things can be true. You fell short. That’s what the evidence are saying. But the one that says and this brought new information that allows you to learn, obviously a more useful one for your health and your future progress.

Amy Edmondson (00:37:58) – So I think it is I think that’s also reframing. I love that it’s learning that, you know, success versus learning because one, I believe can start to, you know, you can train yourself to view learning as very aligned with success, right? If it was a good day, if I learned something I remember many years ago when I was young, professional and talking to my mother and how was your day? And she was a teacher and administrator in a school and she said it was great. I got a lot done. And it’s like one of those lightbulb moments for me because I realized that was the brainwashing that I had grown up with, like to equate a good day with productivity, you know, getting a lot done. It wasn’t a good day if you smell the flowers and whatever, it was a good day if you got a lot done. And at that moment I sort of resolved to break that straitjacket. Of course, I never did. You know, I continue to overly equate a good day with getting a lot done.

Amy Edmondson (00:39:01) – But what if, you know, what if really success means? I learned a lot today, like I had insights I hadn’t had before. I had ideas that I can’t wait to experiment with to see if they work. That sense that growing and expanding what I know and what I can do is really why I’m here.

Jonathan Fields (00:39:22) – You also bring up an interesting issue, which is the notion of so many of the messages that we receive around what makes for success, what makes for a good day. Those seeds are planted really early in life for us, you know, either by like our family, our chosen family or whoever were around our peers and immediate community. And we’re probably not even aware of the fact for a long time, if ever, that these are the metrics by which I live my life and make choices. I remember Sara Blakely sharing a story, founder of Spanx, about how when she was a kid, her dad basically around the dinner table, would ask every kid, what did you fail at today? Because he was trying to normalize that experience.

Jonathan Fields (00:39:59) – Like that was the seed that was planted for her and the family when she was at the youngest age.

Amy Edmondson (00:40:04) – You know, and that’s such a great example of a parent planting a seed on purpose, because I think most of the seeds that get planted or just by habit by, you know, what my parents said or so they’re just there, but they’re not designed. And and some of those messages are probably pretty good messages, you know, treat other people well and so on. But but some of them can contribute to our pain when we get things wrong.

Jonathan Fields (00:40:32) – Yeah. I mean, I remember the classic also I had plenty of friends when I was this was was not my experience, but I had plenty of friends who would come home and they would be effectively punished when they didn’t get an A and greatly rewarded when they got an A And you wonder like down the road what there’s the perfectionism right there. Right. It’s like there’s only one acceptable thing to bring home.

Amy Edmondson (00:40:56) – Yes. Lodge is right in that brain and won’t go away.

Jonathan Fields (00:41:00) – Yeah. And that just floods out to all parts of lives. We’ve been sort of like talking about reframing one or the other, sort of like ways of overcoming barriers that you describe as discerning the different types of failure, which I think we’ve talked about. But the third one, which has been a years long devotion of yours, is psychological safety. And I think a lot of folks have heard this phrase in the context of work these days. But again, I think it’s one of those phrases where we hear it, but we don’t necessarily understand what it is, and we have even less of an understanding of how. To create it. So. So take me there a bit.

Amy Edmondson (00:41:35) – Sure. Because it is you’re you’re right. It’s a third piece here that’s very important, because if uncertainty is here to stay, if failures are here to stay, much of our response to them will be collective like will be in teams or in with partners where we’re trying to solve the problem together or trying to assess the situation together.

Amy Edmondson (00:41:57) – So doing this learning well is more often than not a team sport, and to do it well requires that we have a sense of psychological safety, which I’ll define as a belief that the context conducive to interpersonal risk. So what’s an interpersonal risk? It’s, you know, it’s speaking up with something that I might feel vulnerable about. It’s asking for help when I’m in over my head. It’s it’s acknowledging that I made a mistake. It’s raising a wild idea that I kind of think is pretty cool. But maybe you’ll laugh at me, right? Those are all interpersonal, risky, and most of us in most contexts will just take the easier, more natural route, which is just to hold back, like, wait and see. I’m going to just kind of maybe listen to the conversation a little longer to decide whether my idea is going to be liked by other people rather than just saying it when when I have it. So psychological safety describes an environment where you do take those risks not because they’re easy and you just feel great all the time, but because you really believe that your colleagues will have the right reaction.

Amy Edmondson (00:43:06) – Even if they don’t like the idea, they’ll they’ll at least honor your willingness to say it. This kind of environment. And honestly, an easier way for me to describe it would be it’s a learning environment. I find myself in a learning environment here that’s a psychologically safe place, not a knowing environment or a proving environment, but a learning environment. So creating those kinds of environments which are not the norm is a crucial part of failing. Well, or, you know, crucial part of confronting failure effectively, of diagnosing it effectively, of minimizing the bad kind. Maybe the very important message and theme is there’s lots of best practices for for minimizing the effects of error on results we care most about that are the highest stakes. Let’s use them. You know, let’s have checklists in the operating room. It’s proven to make a difference. We don’t want to celebrate the complex or basic failure that happens in a surgery that could have been prevented by a simple checklist.

Jonathan Fields (00:44:13) – Yeah. By somebody’s willingness to speak up when they saw something going sideways, which if there’s no psychological safety, they’re not going to I don’t know if there’s a sort of a recipe for psychological safety of like, these are the like the three key elements of it.

Jonathan Fields (00:44:26) – But in your mind, are there sort of like basic elements?

Amy Edmondson (00:44:29) – It’s there are in my mind, there are three key elements and I often will describe those as what should leaders say. But the truth is it’s any one of us can do these things and just contribute to a more psychologically safe, learning oriented team or group or family or what have you. And the three things are framing, you know, framing the situation that we’re in as one that requires learning or voice or input. It’s like it’s almost that reminder. We’ve never done this before, right? We’ve never gone on this adventure before. We’ve never done this kind of project before. But literally calling attention to novelty or uncertainty or interdependence creates a rationale for voice. Like why? Why should you bother taking the interpersonal risks, putting yourself out there? Well, because, look, it’s brand new or it matters or it’s important. And so that’s kind of that’s almost setting the stage. It’s it’s getting out ahead of it, getting out ahead of our human tendency to hold back by clarifying why that won’t be helpful.

Amy Edmondson (00:45:38) – And the second one, which is super easy and straightforward, is just ask, ask questions. That’s what you’re doing today. You’re asking me questions and I promise you it would feel awkward, if not impossible, to remain silent after you ask me a question. Right? It’s questions, demand responses. And so when you ask questions, especially the kinds of questions that aren’t yes, no, or leading questions, but genuine questions that convey, I’d like to hear from you. That is a gift, right? That basically says to the other person, it might feel a little risky, but honestly, you just got an embossed invitation. So take it. And the third bit is how do you respond, right? How do you respond when someone says something wacky or when they ask a question that you silently think is kind of a stupid question? Right. How do you respond? And the answer. Is appreciatively, right? Not fake. Wonderful. Isn’t that great? But just so glad you asked.

Amy Edmondson (00:46:37) – Right. It’s it’s this because really mattered that they asked and that is I think the hardest one is responding appreciatively productively because you have to catch yourself. You might have to take a deep breath and say, huh, interesting. I didn’t see that coming. Let me give this my best shot. Yeah.

Jonathan Fields (00:46:55) – And I mean, you’re describing it also from the context, it sounds like, of somebody who is creating the container, a leader, like somebody who’s, you know, these are the ways that we actually create it. So somebody can step into that container and feel psychologically safe. The flip side is all all of us who would step into that conversation, that meeting room, that whatever the container is and feel like if somebody who’s leading that room are inviting you in, literally ask you for your point of view, for your opinion, even if you’re the newbie in the room, it’s saying you matter, your opinion matters. And then if you say something that’s just completely off base or uninformed, then that person then still says to you something like, I think maybe that’s not quite right for this conversation, but I so appreciate you offering this and please continue to do so.

Jonathan Fields (00:47:42) – You know, like little things like that. I mean, would that be sort of like the type of response that you’re talking about?

Amy Edmondson (00:47:47) – You know, and in a way, it’s just I’m caring about you as a human being, right? I may not like the idea. I may disagree or may think that was unhelpful. But care enough about you as a human being and I care enough about the future to want to not say or do something that will inhibit voice going forward. Because the next utterance might have been the game changing idea that saved the company or, you know, the, you know, error that was caught before real harm happened. And so it’s a it’s an awareness that your responses matter to what happens next.

Jonathan Fields (00:48:22) – Yeah. And being that person who just offered the idea that’s been like gently and appreciatively shot down like so like that’s a mini failure for me. And then we can go back to some of the other tools that you were talking about. Like, how can I then like it makes it easier for me to reframe this as a positive learning experience.

Jonathan Fields (00:48:41) – If the person who’s responding to me is responding in that way that says like, not quite right now, but please keep doing it and I appreciate you and what you bring to this precisely.

Amy Edmondson (00:48:50) – And you get to say to yourself, that wasn’t a winner. But I’m so glad I tried. I can feel good about myself for for taking a risk.

Jonathan Fields (00:48:58) – Yeah, No, I love that. One of the things I wanted to touch on also, because I am such a believer in the role of awareness, especially self awareness in everything that we do. It’s hard to live a good life unless you’re intentional about like the way that you move through your life. And it’s hard to be intentional unless and until you’re aware on some level. So I thought it was fascinating that you actually devoted some amount of energy to the exploration of awareness in the context of failure. Take me there a little bit.

Amy Edmondson (00:49:30) – Yeah. Okay. And this was, for me, new territory. The challenge here is that a lot of what I’ll talk about awareness is very overlapping with our discussion of framing.

Amy Edmondson (00:49:40) – But the probably the, the, the single tagline for this topic for me is choose learning over knowing. Right. So and it’s the self awareness is the self awareness to know that you’re likely to choose knowing over learning meaning you’re likely to sort of fall prey to the trap of thinking that you see reality, that you know what’s going on. Right? That there’s a lack of genuine curiosity in our natural responses, in all the various situations that we find ourselves in, in our lives. And so becoming more self aware to know the way you are projecting onto reality, your own biases and background and expertise. And, you know, those those hidden messages that you picked up in your childhood and beyond is a really important part of, of of self awareness. I mean, it’s not that what you’re doing when you look at reality is bad. It’s just there, you know, learning to kind of hold it lightly, like learning to be aware that I’m imposing my own meaning on what’s so so that I can get more curious.

Amy Edmondson (00:50:56) – I think the bottom line is, let’s get curious. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that we don’t know. There’s so much more to know.

Jonathan Fields (00:51:07) – Yeah, it resonates deeply. And just the notion of, you know, constantly asking yourself what is really true here or what is the closest to the truth that I can get about my internal experience and my external experience. Because I think that lets us probably let go of a lot of the the stuff that we layer into, like the reality of the situation and just deal with the fact of the situation. But that’s. Not necessarily easy to do. It’s easier said than done, I think, for a lot of us.

Amy Edmondson (00:51:34) – I think it’s that’s what I’m often studying, things that I find hard, you know, like psychological safety. I’m often afraid, okay, I don’t want to I don’t want to make a mistake here. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I want to I want to be liked, etcetera. So and this is true, this sort of the self awareness thing, it’s so easy to fall into that trap that just, you know, you’re like the objective eye looking at the world rather than know you’re highly subjective, being, you know, processing things.

Amy Edmondson (00:52:03) – And maybe there’s another way, another way to look at it and another way to understand what’s happening. You know, my I love the phrase that Ray Dalio uses, which is he’s just he taught himself to shift from I’m Right, which is a natural reaction, especially of, you know, very smart people, very high achieving people, like just I believe I’m right. I’m looking at some situation. I’ve sized it up. I believe I’m right. We all do that to varying degrees. But he was he, you know, was doing it and had quite a track record to lead him to think he was in fact, right. So he said he couldn’t just you can’t shed that habit. Right. That habit of, hey, I’m right. But he said, I taught myself to say, I wonder why I’m right, which is just a baby step, if you think about it from, you know, I’m right about what the market’s going to do next to I wonder why I’m right. I wonder why I think I’m right.

Amy Edmondson (00:52:56) – And that’s a more curious stance. And it requires you to take the next step of really thinking it through. What data am I using? What experiences am I using and what am I missing?

Jonathan Fields (00:53:08) – I love that reframe, which is basically what that is. As you were sharing that, I was also saying to myself, Well, what would the question I would ask myself be? And what just jumped into my mind was, if I was wrong, how might I be wrong? Because it just opens a whole bunch of channels of curiosity there. And as we start to to come full circle in a conversation and zoom the lens out a little bit, it feels like, well, we haven’t used the word a lot. A lot of what we’ve really been talking about here is inviting the frame of curiosity into the experience of failure and saying like, let me just question all of the different parts of this here and see what can I take from it. And just so that I can keep entering into new cycles of curiosity as I succeed and fail and learn, and that if I can stay in that frame of curiosity, that becomes something that keeps me okay through a lot of this.

Amy Edmondson (00:54:03) – I think that’s exactly right. And of course, there’s this tight connection between curiosity and learning, which is the other, you know, word we keep coming back to because it is so easy to fail to be curious. And again, that comes from the that sense of I know, but if you can just activate Curiosity even a little bit and I love your question. If I was wrong, how might I be wrong or what might I be missing? It’s not an unhappy thought, right? It’s almost a happy thought. Like it’s a kind of, oh, I’m a little child and I’m open I’m open to what might be happening next because I’m I’m curious. And we all have curiosity. We were born with curiosity, but it can lay dormant. And waking it back up again is probably the most important thing you can do, both to experience the, you know, intelligent failures more fully and usefully, but also to prevent many of the preventable ones.

Jonathan Fields (00:54:59) – Yeah, that’s such a great point. So as we come full circle in this larger conversation and Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?

Amy Edmondson (00:55:10) – Be curious.

Jonathan Fields (00:55:12) – Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you’d love this episode safe bet. You’ll also love the conversation that we had with Angela Duckworth, really revealing the truth about the science and art of this thing called grit. You’ll find a link to Angela’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action.

Jonathan Fields (00:56:10) – That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.

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