Making Failure Useful

Christopher Pocock, Business Analyst here at Chemistry, has just completed his second Ironman triathlon. Here he reflects on the race and draws on his favourite book, Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, to learn valuable lessons about ‘failure’…

In September 2016, I completed Ironman Wales in 11h 21m 45s. It was my first ever competitive triathlon and marked the end of 20 gruelling and life-consuming weeks of training.

Last week, I made a repeat attempt, aiming to use experience and a shiny inventory to better my time. In the twilight, on the longest day I can remember, I finished in a time of 13h 9m 50s, overdosing on an adrenaline high and muscle cramp, and enjoying a confusing mix of pride, euphoria, relief and deflation.

I’d made a huge achievement. That’s important to say outright. I look back at the day with pride; without regrets and especially without shame. Anyone who finishes an Ironman deserves to be proud – but to not shine a light on why I missed my target is to miss the greatest of opportunities…

I’ve recently been re-reading my favourite book – Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It casts, amongst other lessons, a magnifying glass over how natural and harmful it is to disguise our personal failures as successes; sacrificing precious learning opportunities in order to save face. I want to use this blog to give you an insight into my race-day mind set – and describe how this book has helped me make a tough day’s lessons work for me.

An Ironman is a one-day triathlon in which athletes swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles back-to-back, without a break. You’re burning upwards of 9,000 calories over the day, so the two most important success factors are fuelling and fitness. You need to eat enough without bloating or needing a poo, and keep your heart rate low enough to prevent burning through all your reserves. It’s very much a race against yourself.

Until 70 miles on the bike I had felt strong. I was in the top 10% after the swim and had maintained a good heart rate/power ratio. But things started to change. My strengths were the hills, where I expected to gain places I’d lost on the flats; but I felt my energy reserves dropping. I was no longer able to push on the hills. By the run, I had work to do.

The marathon includes four 10.6km laps of Tenby’s beautiful surrounding area, each involving a 4km climb away from town and descending back.

After a 62-minute lap of the marathon, I was up the creek. I knew I couldn’t complete the Ironman in my target time. But I needed a target, so I set myself a new goal of a sub-4-hour marathon.

After a second 68-minute lap, I had lost the paddle. I wouldn’t meet my 4-hour marathon target and my energy reserves were gone. I spent the remaining 13 miles of the race trying simply, agonisingly, to not let my jog break into a walk. And that was harder than just about anything I can remember.

One of the key messages in Black Box Thinking is around the psychology of how we experience personal setback. When one misses a goal, our initial reaction is emotional. We consider ourselves a failure rather than considering that small parts of our strategy or execution need work. The natural defence mechanism to this is to disguise or blunt our failure: “It’s the effort that counts.” In actuality, saying “I’ve failed therefore I’m a failure” and saying “I haven’t really failed” have the same effect: they remove the necessity and opportunity of taking a closer look at why we’ve failed and how we can prevent it from occurring again.

I enjoyed my day (yes, I’m a bit sadistic) and I made a landmark achievement in finishing a second Ironman; but I want to shine a light on the failure aspect too. Why did I miss my goal? What lessons could I take from this failure and from others to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

The first question has a straightforward answer: I didn’t train hard enough. My race-day fuelling and mind-set were good, so that had to be it. But why was that? For me, the lessons are both practical and psychological, and I intend to apply them well beyond my triathlon training.

Lesson 1: Ask yourself from the beginning: how badly do you want it?
Your ‘why’ is the most important factor in anything that you do. My ‘why’ last year was to complete my first ironman in under 12 hours and raise £1,000 for the British Refugee Council. This year it was to better last year’s time. The former is far more powerful.

Getting the ‘why’ right will have the single greatest effect on your execution. In my case, it was the difference between getting up at 7am on a Saturday to cycle 100miles to Brighton and back, weekly. Last year I did this without fail. This year I didn’t miss many, but I missed some – enough to make a difference.

But remember: it may be worth taking up your challenge even without a powerful enough ‘why’ statement. Every failure is a learning opportunity.

Lesson 2: Give yourself a framework for success, and for failure.
As far as I know, I missed “some” of my long sessions this year. But I didn’t set out and track against a plan, so I didn’t know as I was training how far behind I was. Getting this instant feedback may have set me back on track.

The applications of this lesson beyond training are quite clear. When starting a task, I need to define exactly what success and failure look like so that I can be held accountable. Without such clarity, it becomes too easy – for a mentor or myself – to fall into the cognitive trap and give praise for a “job well done,” when improvements need to be made and lessons learned.

Lesson 3: Give yourself as many learning opportunities as possible.
In the case of an Ironman, these are long training sessions where your body is exerted for more than 7 hours. Use these opportunities to learn how your body reacts to different fuels, drinks and supplements when it’s under extreme stress. Don’t assume your body reacts the same after 1 hour of work as it does after 10. It doesn’t.

In the case of a presentation, this is asking a mentor to watch a full run-through a week in advance. It goes without saying that preparation is important, but this is too often missed. Enable real feedback by making it clear what success and failure look like. Doing this aligns your lessons with what’s important.

Lesson 4: Make yourself publicly accountable.
Last year, I published a bi-weekly blog and made my 12-hour Ironman goal abundantly clear to everyone in my network. Friends of friends were committing performance-dependant sums of money to the British Refugee Council. I felt driven each week to train so that I could tell my network about my latest struggles and lessons. I had the extra 10% I needed on the day.

If you’re not often public with your achievements this won’t come as naturally to you, but it’s valuable. When all else fails, having those around you spur you on when you can’t find reason on your own makes all the difference.

So how will I make these lessons work for me?
If I had bettered my former time by 1 hour and 10 minutes, I would have qualified to compete in the annual ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii – the dream of almost any triathlete. I will give myself a break. Maybe for a year. Make myself want it again. But if a change in approach can result in a time that’s 1 hour and 50 minutes slower than my first attempt, maybe that effect can be reversed next time. One way to tell…

Sep, 15, 2017

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