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Fail Constructively, with Tim Harford

Fail Constructively: Learn From Your Mistakes, with Tim Harford, Economist and Author, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

A Successful Mindset

A few days before Christmas 1954 a group of ordinary people gathered together in a house in Chicago with a very unusual belief: they believed that at midnight aliens would come, collect them and take them to the planet Clarion. And the reason that aliens from the planet Clarion were going to collect them was because the world was about to be destroyed. It would be destroyed at dawn the next day. So the cult gathered together. They were under the influence of a woman called Dorothy Martin who was receiving messages from these aliens. And they waited.

Now what’s interesting about this particular group of people is that they had been infiltrated by a psychologist called Leon Festinger, and Festinger wanted to know what would happen when these people were proved wrong. I don’t want to jump to the conclusion, but it turns out the aliens didn’t come. I’m sorry if that was a surprise. The aliens didn’t come, the world wasn’t destroyed.

Festinger sat and watched as these, this group of people, true believers, sat around in a sitting room – midnight, no aliens, one o’clock, no aliens, two o’clock, no aliens, three o’clock, no aliens – absolutely stunned. And at four o’clock Dorothy Martin burst into tears, broke down, and then at half past four picked up a pencil and announced that she was receiving a message from the aliens and began to write. And the message was: because of the commitment of the group and their belief, the world was going to be spared, and it wouldn’t be destroyed. And so there would be no need for the aliens to come after all.

And then what Leon Festinger predicted happened. The cultists went out on the street and they began to spread the good news. They’d previously been very restrained but now they embraced their old beliefs more firmly than ever before. They sent out press releases. They phoned the newspapers. They wanted everybody to know.

Now why did they behave like this? Festinger said it’s because they had invested everything in their beliefs. They’d left their wives and husbands. They’d left their jobs. They’d given away their possessions. Everything was totally committed to being right. And when they were proved wrong, they couldn’t accept that they were wrong and so they just adapted their beliefs until they weren’t wrong anymore.

Now this idea is called cognitive dissonance. You may have heard of it. All of us are at risk of cognitive dissonance in a small way whenever we make a mistake, particularly a mistake on something that’s important to us, particularly when we’ve invested our reputation, when we’ve put money into it, when we’ve put time into it. That is when we are most at risk because our self-image is under threat. We find it really hard to separate the idea that, I made a mistake, I failed, I did something wrong, with the idea that, I am a failure, I am the kind of person who makes mistakes, I am the kind of person who gets things wrong.

And I think the first step in responding in a constructive way when you’ve made a mistake is to separate yourself from the mistake and to understand: you can be a person who made a mistake – that does not make you a person who will always make mistakes. And hold those ideas in your mind. And then you’ll be able to admit you got something wrong and start to, in a mature and forward thinking way, think about how to fix it.

How to Be a Successful Failure

Let’s talk about how to be a really successful failure, I mean, how to fail in a really exciting, productive, constructive way. And I think there are really three tricks to it. The first thing is to admit that since failure is around every corner -- we’re always making mistakes, if we try to do something interesting we’re gonna be making mistakes -- we need to generate lots of ideas. We need to be doing lots of things. We need to try lots of stuff.

Now it follows pretty directly that if you’re gonna try lots of stuff, you’re gonna fail at lots of stuff. Therefore, you need the failures to be survivable in some way. So whenever you’re trying a new experiment, whether it’s a new job, a new product, a new hobby, a new boyfriend or girlfriend – whatever it is -- you need to give some thought to what you’re gonna do if it doesn’t work out and how to minimize the downside as well as taking advantage of the upside. The biggest disasters in human history are always when people just assume that failure was impossible or they weren’t willing to contemplate it.

And the third thing – the third element that’s really important and easy to say but hard to do – is to have some kind of mechanism, some sort of feedback mechanism that tells you whether things are going well or not going well, tells you whether you’re succeeding or failing. And this could be all kinds of things. In the case of medicine and doctors and epidemiologists, medical researchers have built a huge infrastructure around randomized control trials and matter analysis and double blind just devoted to stopping them from kidding themselves that some new treatment is working when it’s really not. I mean, that’s sometimes what it takes.

But in everyday life often it’s simply a case of asking yourself what the markers for success might be. Or even simpler than that, just asking someone you can trust to give you a straight opinion. It could be remarkably hard to get people to give you an honest and constructive opinion. But that’s absolutely essential. What I’m talking about is not when you go up to somebody and say, “Was that all right? Was that working?” but when you go up to somebody and say, “Can you give me one suggestion for something I might do better?” People are so unused to being asked that question, you may not always get responses, but that’s the kind of feedback that you need if you’re going to fix your own mistakes.  


In this video, economist and author Tim Harford teaches an important lesson about succeeding at failure through the story of psychologist Leon Festinger’s infiltration of a cult led by Dorothy Martin in 1954. Festinger studied the cult members’ reaction to Martin’s false prophecy that the world would be destroyed the following day.Harford uses this example to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance. All of us, he says, are at risk of cognitive dissonance in a small way whenever we make a mistake, particularly a mistake on something that’s important to us. We are most at risk when our self-image is under threat. Harford then walks us through an antidote to this phenomenon -- to prepare to be a successful failure. To do that, Harford explains, we need to have a successful mindset and a plan of action for learning from our mistakes.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
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  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."