Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Would You Do if You Knew You Couldn’t Fail?

I recently watched a talk of Naomi Klein’s on, where she mentions that Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP at the time of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, had a plaque on his wall with this phrase:

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Klein’s implication is that when Hayward and other people ask themselves this question they get a deluded sense of the possible.  Unless a person is bipolar and has a psychotic view of his or her own abilities, I disagree.

The first thing that springs to most people’s mind is to do something illegal, like rob a bank, or kill someone.  In this case failure is interpreted as getting caught.  Ok, let’s say you actually did that illegal thing – could you live with yourself for the rest of your life?  If you robbed a bank while it was open, scaring tellers, customers and their kids could you live guilt free?  If you killed a person you definitely wouldn’t, unless you were a conscienceless sociopath.

Another thing that tends to come to mind is to do something that isn’t illegal, but is unethical, like cheat on your spouse.  Again, this is interpreting failure to mean getting caught.  And again, could you live with yourself?  I hope not.

So how should you interpret this question?  By thinking about the definition of failure in your imagined scenario.

As I stated above, failure doesn’t equal not getting caught, so this question isn’t about getting away with something.  Failure also doesn’t mean that succeeding would be a walk in the park.  “Having a 3rd/4th/nth kid” could be considered a good answer because even though you might have hard times, you can sort of define success (e.g. kid graduates high school/college/university without a criminal record and moves out).  Failure means not achieving a goal, and having not succeeded you don’t have any more chances.  If you have unlimited tries at a goal then you can’t really fail, you can only give up.  The goal also has to be in the realm of the possible.  Bringing someone back to life is not an acceptable answer.

So the question is about doing something where you only have one chance, or a very limited number of real chances.  By real chances I mean that even if you can theoretically try lots of times, people will remember you failing and not even consider you, like people who try out for American Idol again and again, or losing presidential candidates.

In Tony Hayward’s defense, I’m sure he didn’t think to himself, “I’d drill a hole deep into the ground that’s deep underwater with no testing and no safety measures in order to produce cheap oil.”  Like any sane person I’m sure he realized there is a follow up question:

Ok, cool.  Now, realizing that you could fail, how will you make sure that you don’t?

Oil companies have been drilling successfully in the Gulf of Mexico for a long time, and know the answer to this question.  Safety measures, testing, redundant systems, following documented and tested procedures.  Not doing these things led to the BP failure.  But I don’t think someone looked at his plaque and thought, “I’d bypass all known ways to succeed to save some money.”  If someone did think this, then he’s out of touch with reality i.e. a psychopath.  The mistake wasn’t in drilling for oil so far down, it was doing it in a really unsafe way.

The question is meant to inspire personal audacity, but with risk mitigation.  Was it a mistake to try to reach oil beneath 1.5Km of water and even more rock?  No, no more than it was a mistake to try sending men to the moon, or to leave Africa 70,000 years ago.  As Jim Kirk said, “Risk is our business.”  The Enterprise’s mission was to explore.  It didn’t go into space without defenses, weapons and the prime directive, though.  (Ok, Kirk was a little TS;DR with the prime directive, but I’m sure there were other captains at the time who followed it.)

By audacity, I mean reaching for a result for which the path is not clear.  Perhaps you think “remodel the kitchen” is an answer.  If you intend to hire a contractor, no, not a good answer.  You can throw money at this until it succeeds.  It has to be a personal challenge, too.  If your answer is “remodel the kitchen myself, even tough I don’t know what lefty loosey, righty tighty means”, then good answer.  This would prompt you to learn the needed skills to mitigate the risk.

Now for my own answers.  Audacious personal actions I would take if I knew I couldn’t fail:

  • Get some of Milton Friedman’s ideas implemented in Canada, namely a flat tax, free immigration, negative income tax, voucher school system.
  • Dismantle the CRTC
  • Change the US Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens to become president
  • Get Arnold Schwarzenegger on the presidential ballot (I think the rest would take care of itself)
  • Strike out on my own as a free lance .NET C# developer
  • Reunite Guns N Roses members at the time of Use Your Illusions and patch things up to the point that they could produce another album
  • Convince MC Plus+ to create another album
  • Prevent Jack Black from making any more movies
  • Ensure Robert Rodriguez, the Cohen Brothers and Ridley Scott keep making movies until they fall over