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Posted at 05:29 PM ET, 06/06/2012

Advice from Dr. Atul Gawande

One of the things that has always interested me in politics—and life, really—is how people handle failure. That question is germane to this year’s presidential race because managers in both campaigns will experience periods where their strategies are not working.  The constant question in  presidential campaigns is when to hold fast and when to go to Plan B.

I have written before about how I have seen managers in campaigns handle failure in the past.  Some withdraw into a shell; some vent and become intolerable to work with or for; and some reach out, reassess, make changes, and get stronger.  This last adaption to  is the only one, of course, that offers the chance of renewed success, but I would say, from my experience, it is the exception.

Campaigns—especially presidential ones—are brutal tests of one’s character and abilities.  As I have noted, it is here that many young Type A achievers confront failure for the first time in their professional lives.  Where to turn in those circumstances? Well, they might want to consult a doctor by reading this article from the New Yorker’s great writer on medicine, Dr. Atul Gawande.  Dr. Gawande made these remarks at a graduation ceremony at Williams College this year and they are good advice for campaign professionals, recent graduates and many more.

Gawande, trained as surgeon, argues that the skills that distinguish great from average surgeons are not the physical ones:

Instead, the critical skills of the best surgeons I saw involved the ability to handle complexity and uncertainty. They had developed judgment, mastery of teamwork, and willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of their choices. In this respect, I realized, surgery turns out to be no different than a life in teaching, public service, business, or almost anything you may decide to pursue. We all face complexity and uncertainty no matter where our path takes us. That means we all face the risk of failure. So along the way, we all are forced to develop these critical capacities—of judgment, teamwork, and acceptance of responsibility.

And Gawande goes on to comment on the best way to adapt to failure:

Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong—whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach. They call them a “failure to rescue.” More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more.

And one final piece of advice from the doctor about what to do when, as it always will, things go south in work, or life for that matter:

But recognizing that your expectations are proving wrong—accepting that you need a new plan—is commonly the hardest thing to do. We have this problem called confidence. To take a risk, you must have confidence in yourself. In surgery, you learn early how essential that is. You are imperfect. Your knowledge is never complete. The science is never certain. Your skills are never infallible. Yet you must act. You cannot let yourself become paralyzed by fear.

By  |  05:29 PM ET, 06/06/2012

 
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