In early August this year, on a Monday morning, the National Weather Service issued a warning of high winds in Maui County, Hawaii. By the next morning, the wind was gusting at over 70 miles an hour. Here’s how one resident described it:
Craig BRADLEY: Tiles are getting ripped off roofs, leaving exposed rooftops with bare wood everywhere. Power lines are like spaghetti strings everywhere.
The island started to lose electricity; and near the town of Lahaina, there was a brush fire. Firefighters arrived, and it was soon declared contained. But later that day, the high winds caused a flare-up.
Keeler MALMSTEN: We could see the smoke. And all of a sudden — oh my gosh. The quickness with which it happened was the craziest part. It was just so fast.
What happened next, you have probably read about, or seen in horrifying videos and news coverage. The town of Lahaina was swallowed by fire. People tried to flee in their cars, but the roads were clogged. Some people jumped in the ocean to escape. Here’s one survivor:
JOANNA: We were in the ocean for probably eight hours, fighting the water, getting pulled out, flames were hitting you still, things were falling from the palm tree on fire on you.
Rafael OCHOA: We’re mad. We’re mad. We didn’t just lose our homes. We lost our town, we lost history, you know? Our kids are traumatized. You guys messed up real bad.
Who messed up real bad? That is the kind of question that some people make it their business to find out.
Ed GALEA: In my work, failure is fatal.
Ed Galea is director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, in London. He got his Ph.D. in astrophysics.
GALEA: I was modeling how stars are born and how they die, but it so happens that the mathematics that are used to develop these models of stars are very similar to the mathematics that we need to simulate how fire spreads in structures.
Galea studies how people react to disasters.
GALEA: For example, the World Trade Center evacuation on 9/11, the Dusseldorf Airport fire, the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s not just fire where a lot of this is relevant. If we look at marauding armed shooters, we also study those situations. The recent event in South Korea, where there were a number of young people crushed to death in a narrow street, is another example. It’s always distressing to look at a new event, especially events that were predictable and preventable.
Wait a minute, events that were “predictable and preventable”? Like “marauding armed shooters”? Or that crowd crush on Halloween in Seoul, South Korea — where more than 150 young people were killed? Don’t events like these happen because they weren’t “predictable and preventable”? We tend to use the word “tragedy” to describe all kinds of terrible events. But what do you call a tragedy that was predictable and preventable? You call that a failure. At least Ed Galea does. Consider the nearly 100 people who died by fire in Lahaina.
GALEA: One of the key issues in managing wildfire situations is managing the evacuation. When do you start the evacuation? How do you inform the public as to the need to evacuate?
Hawaii has a robust emergency-warning system — although it is most famous for having falsely notified the entire state of an impending missile strike, in 2018. But the system appears to have failed during the wildfires. This is from an NBC News interview with a survivor.
NBC NEWS: Did you hear any alarms, did you get any kind of warning?
OCHOA: No alarms, no warning, nothing. No, no sign, nothing, that we had to evacuate.
Ed Galea says it’s too early to know everything that went wrong in Hawaii — but: it’s clear that the evacuation was a failure. And, therefore, preventable. Because as Galea likes to say, a failure is not just about the tragic moment.
GALEA: It’s a chain of events. Failure to notify people early enough, failure for the people to respond to the call, failure for the people to have a plan as to what they’re going to do during an evacuation.
Okay, can we agree on that? A failure — any kind of failure — is a chain of events. There can be any number of causes. And any number of consequences, too: embarrassment, shame, anger, pain, financial loss, the loss of reputation, the loss of life. There are public failures and private failures, each of them costly in their own ways. And of course there’s the fear of failure, and the fear of being seen having failed. This means that sometimes we don’t even try. And what’s the cost of that? Or: we try to hide our failures — which means denying everyone else what might have been a helpful example. You might think that, as long as we humans have been failing, by now we’d be very good at managing it, and learning from it. But my argument today is that we’re not. Most of us don’t think about failure as a chain of events. Most of us get angry, or frustrated, and we go looking for someone to blame. Consider what happens when a hospital patient is given the wrong drug.
Amy EDMONDSON: The natural tendency is just to look at what they call in hospitals “the sharp end,” or at the last person, the person at the bedside who administered that drug. But in fact, the chain of events goes back to the pharmacy, and even to the I.T. folks who printed the label in a weird way.
That is Amy Edmondson, another failure expert. She’s at the Harvard Business School, and her research focuses on failure in organizations. Which is not uncommon.
EDMONDSON: Many times, you have failures in organizations simply because one silo doesn’t know what the other silo is doing. So, these are learning events. One big reason we don’t learn enough from failures is that we don’t share them systematically enough.
Okay, so let’s get systematic! Failure is something that has long intrigued me, and so — I hope you don’t mind — we’re making a series on the topic. We’ll call it “How to Succeed at Failing.” I suspect that you are also intrigued by failure. A while back, when we asked listeners to send us their failure stories, we got many replies. There were stories about failure in the business world.
Theresa MACPHAIL: What happened to Enron? What happened to WeWork?
We heard about failures of government policy.
Stefan SZYMANSKI: Detroit’s failures are interesting, because it’s also a failure of planning.
Failed relationships, of course.
Helen FISHER: Well, I actually don’t think that they’re a failure, but that’s for different Darwinian reasons.
There are failures of imagination.
Joseph O’CONNELL: You’ve prepared for problems A, B, C, D, E, and F, and something like M comes out of the blue and smacks you.
Failures of determination.
Mike RIDGEMAN: Part of my problem was I did not ask enough questions.
And failures that cut deep.
Jill HOFFMAN: I think that was my tipping point, where I just went, “I’m done.” And it broke me.
You will hear those stories, and you’ll also hear about better ways to think about failure, and learn from it. I once had a wise teacher, and he had a wise teacher, and she had a wise teacher … and that teacher had a mantra. It went like this: “Be bad; but don’t be boring.” I should say, these were acting teachers — but I think the lesson applies anywhere. The idea is that when you’re trying to create something, or accomplish something, it’s tempting to stick to the boring, the tried-and-true, the riskless path. That’s how much we fear failing. But the point of the mantra is that it’s better to take a chance, to risk being bad — because that’s the only way you’ll actually make something good.
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DUBNER: If we could just talk about your path to this moment, this place. How did you become a scholar of failure, if I may be so bold as to call you so?
EDMONDSON: I’m very happy to be called that. It seems like an upgrade. I became a scholar of failure because I wanted to be a scholar of organizational learning. So I came to graduate school with the idea, unformed, that organizations need to keep changing to stay relevant in a world that keeps changing. And they didn’t seem to be very good at it.
That, again, is the organizational psychologist Amy Edmondson. She recently published a book called Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well. She understands this is a hard sell.
EDMONDSON: I haven’t met anyone who feels really good about failure, myself included. You have to force yourself to feel good about failure.
DUBNER: And why do you think that is?
EDMONDSON: I think it’s our upbringing, right? By the time you’re in elementary school, there’s such a strong emphasis on getting the right answer or succeeding, not failing, and so, we’re not trained very well in the whole idea of uncertainty or novelty.
DUBNER: You write that there are three reasons why most of us fail at failure: aversion, confusion, and fear. I’d like you to walk us through each of those, and say how they contribute to failure.
EDMONDSON: Sure. I think of them as emotional, cognitive, and social. So, emotionally, we’re just spontaneously averse to failure. “I don’t like it. I don’t want to have it. I don’t want to look at it,” right? It’s immediate. Cognitively, because we don’t do a good job or don’t have access to a simple framework to distinguish among kinds of failures, we then sort of decide to not like any of them. And the fear part has to do with our concerns — very deep and deeply-founded concerns — of what other people think of us. So, we don’t want to be seen as having shortcomings. We don’t want to be seen as associated with a failure.
DUBNER: Wow. So, in other words, in every strand of our lives — the social, the internal — we have the capacity to fail. I mean, we’re really good at failing, you’re saying.
EDMONDSON: We’re good at failing. I mean, we are, by definition, fallible human beings, each and every one of us. And we will have failures. You know, the only real question is: how bad do we have to feel about it?
There have been plenty of efforts to rebrand failure. You can see this by simply scrolling through the titles of popular TED Talks. “Smart Failure for a Fast-Changing World.” “How Failure Cultivates Resilience.” “The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure.” Embracing failure is a particularly popular idea in Silicon Valley — although, interestingly, you never hear about it from people who are in the midst of a failure; you hear about it after the fact from people who have succeeded wildly. Here is Mark Zuckerberg from a commencement speech at Harvard, in 2017.
Mark ZUCKERBERG: Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built. I also built chat systems and games, study tools and music players, and I am not alone. J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times before she finally wrote and published Harry Potter. Even Beyonce had to make hundreds of songs to get “Halo.”
So what does Amy Edmondson think of messages like this?
EDMONDSON: They’re inadequate. When you say, “fail fast,” “fail often,” “big smile on your face” — you know, most people, “Oh, yeah, I get it. I see, innovation, blah, blah, blah.” But, at a deeper level, wait a minute. Failure’s not good, right? I don’t want a failure and I don’t want to fail, so I’ll pretend I agree with that, but in reality, no way. It’s just wrong. Failure is bad.
DUBNER: I just want to read back what I think is the best quote I’ve ever heard from an H.B.S. professor. “Oh, yeah, innovation, blah, blah, blah.”
EDMONDSON: But you know what I’m talking about. Slogans aren’t enough, you know? Slogans don’t get you to the behavioral changes you need to make.
We reached out to another psychologist whose work I admire, Gary Klein. He’s a cognitive psychologist who studies decision-making. I asked Klein what he thinks of those Silicon Valley failure slogans.
KLEIN: I think they tend to be cliches. And my negative reaction to them is, it’s pretending that we should learn to enjoy failure. And I don’t think we should enjoy failure. I think failure needs to burn on us. When I talk to people, I want to find out if they’re experts, one of the things I ask them is: “Can you tell me about the last mistake you made?” And some people, a surprising number of people, say, “I can’t think of any mistakes.” But the people I think are the real experts, they can tell you, because those mistakes have been bothering them for the last couple of weeks.
DUBNER: But many of the failures that I read about in the academic literature on leadership and management — most them have a happy ending. You know, “We got through all that failure on the way to our great triumph.” What do you think of that type of narrative being so dominant? Does it hide too many failures that end in failure?
KLEIN: I think it does. I think the failure stories tend not to be advertised as well. People who had those stories aren’t in a position to go on the lecture circuit or write books.
DUBNER: Would the world be better if we had a broader acceptance of, or at least less fear of, discussing failure?
KLEIN: I think it would, but we don’t want to discourage entrepreneurs from trying things out, even though the chances of success are so low. It’s not a good gamble for the entrepreneurs, but it’s good for our society.
Let’s step back for a minute, and acknowledge this fact: the way we see failure has changed over the centuries; it also varies greatly across individuals and across cultures. The ancient Greeks, for instance, hated and feared failure, but they largely attributed it to the whims of the gods. The ancient Romans, meanwhile, attributed failure — particularly on the battlefield — to human error; failure was considered shameful, often the grounds for suicide. And think about the Christian concept of original sin — you are born with failure in your soul. I asked Gary Klein for a modern definition of failure — at least his modern definition.
KLEIN: Failure is an inability to accomplish important goals that you have set out for yourself.
Okay, that’s one definition — maybe a bit narrow? I asked Amy Edmondson for her take.
EDMONDSON: I want to be broad. Let’s start broad. A failure is something undesired that happens. And a failure-free life is not a possibility. One way to think about this is: we will be failing, so let’s do it joyfully, let’s do it thoughtfully, and celebrate them appropriately.
Okay, so we’re starting to see why failure is tricky. Two failure experts, two very different definitions.
KLEIN: There are people who say we should learn to enjoy failure and use failure, and not respond negatively to it. I don’t agree with that. I think it needs to be negative emotionally. The value of failure is it forces us to reexamine our assumptions and to revise our concepts of how things work, or can fall apart.
DUBNER: I’ve seen the argument that a lot of failure is hushed up because, A) people are embarrassed, or ashamed perhaps; but also, B) they’re eager to move on to something that’s not a failure. And that that hushing up can have a big downside, which is that people don’t know what that failure was. The data aren’t necessarily published or released, and therefore it can waste an awful lot of time by an awful lot of smart, motivated people, if they don’t know what path produced failure. What are your thoughts on that?
KLEIN: I think that’s exactly accurate, that in many organizations, people don’t want to admit their own failures because it will reflect poorly on them, and they don’t want to call out their colleagues because that’s going to disrupt the harmony. And so they avoid it, or they just find some ways to redirect the focus of the team in another direction, so they don’t have to confront how this failed and why it failed.
DUBNER: So when you’re in the realm of decision-making, you’re working with a lot of people, I assume, who come from different disciplines. They might be from management, from engineering, and so on. But with a background in cognitive psychology, I’m wondering, Gary, if you feel the way you do about failure, in part because of an evolutionary explanation. In other words, does failure need to burn at us for the simple reason that we won’t progress as a tribe, as a civilization, if it doesn’t burn at us?
KLEIN: That feels right. I would accept that analysis.
DUBNER: So if someone were to ask you what’s the correct way or the most productive way to think about failure generally, do you have an answer for that?
KLEIN: I don’t have a good answer. I’ll tell you what I do. What I do is, I become discouraged and depressed for a couple of days, and I say, “I never want to do any of that again.” And I just — I don’t totally repress it, but I wish I could repress it. And then eventually, after a couple of days, almost always, I realize, “You know, if I had done that or if we had arranged that differently, that could have been really exciting.” And now I can’t wait to do it again.
So that’s how a couple of psychologists think about failure, especially personal failures and failure in organizations. Let’s slide over to thinking about failures in the economy. How might an economist think about failure?
John VAN REENEN: I think it’s extraordinarily important.
John Van Reenen is a professor at the London School of Economics. He studies innovation — or, as Amy Edmondson calls it, “innovation blah blah blah.”
VAN REENEN: I think that when you do what we do in research, you recognize the fact that most ideas you have are not going to work. There’s a risk of being paralyzed by that. But the way to approach that is to say, “Well, let’s just try them out.” In a way, the whole market economy is like an “experimentation machine.” Loads of companies fail, but the ones who do come up with things which people want to buy or come up with new ideas are the ones who can be successful. So I think that notion of embracing failure is very important.
Van Reenen is particularly interested in failure because of a puzzle that economists are trying to solve: why has there been, over the past couple decades, a decline in innovation and productivity in advanced economies like the U.K. and the U.S.?
VAN REENEN: If you look over the last 20, 25 years, the fraction of jobs in new firms has actually declined in the U.S. The degree of entrepreneurship has been going down.
Van Reenen thinks this may have to do with a decreased appetite for risk.
VAN REENEN: One of the reasons for people being risk-averse is the worry about failure, because if you fail, that makes it look like maybe you were incompetent, or doing the wrong thing.
DUBNER: There is this set of mantras from Silicon Valley about “fail fast” and the “success of failure,” and so on. But in most places in the world, people don’t really believe in that. Failure is seen as an embarrassment, a shameful thing, a thing we don’t talk about, and therefore a thing we don’t learn about. So do you have any advice for changing mindsets about failure?
VAN REENEN: Well, I think yes. America is a bit like this, compared to Europe — it’s better to try and fail than never to have tried at all. So, the rewards for actually trying something, even if it doesn’t work out, that is part of a kind of cultural change which I think is very beneficial.
DUBNER: I just want to make sure I understood that right. You are saying that America does lead the world in failure.
VAN REENEN: In trying, and in success. I think that’s probably true: in failure and in success. Compared to, say, Europe, I think there’s a much stronger emphasis on entrepreneurship. If you think of the bankruptcy laws, for example; a more generous approach in Chapter 11 to saying where things went wrong, it’s not necessarily your fault. In many parts of Europe, historically, it’s like, if you’re bankrupt, you’re not allowed to run another business for another 15 years. That reflects this feeling that it’s always your fault if things went wrong.
DUBNER: Are you saying that that relatively high rate of success is due in some part to a particularly American embrace or at least ability to withstand failure?
VAN REENEN: I think it is. I think that’s part of the historically greater levels of entrepreneurship in the United States than in Europe, has related to that greater tolerance of if things go wrong, it’s not such a great shame as it would be in Europe. And that creates more successes. I mean, if you think about the superstar firms in the digital sector. The Googles, the Facebooks and everything else. You don’t see many of those in Europe or any part of the world, maybe apart from China. So there is something about the culture and of America. I’ve seen this having lived both in America and in Europe — there is a greater openness to trying new things out, even if, at the end of the day, they don’t work out.
Okay, to summarize John Van Reenen’s economic view: The United States is a hotbed of failure — and that’s a good thing. But he’s talking about failed business ideas. How about failed relationships?
FISHER: I ended up finding that romantic love is an addiction.
That’s coming up after the break. I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio, and you’re listening to “How to Succeed at Failing.”
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Most of the academic literature on failure is devoted to institutional and business failures. And that makes sense; that’s where the money is. But let’s consider another kind of failure, one that is typically the province of poets —and occasionally, a brave academic researcher.
FISHER: Well, nobody gets out of love alive. We all know that. But we go on.
That is Helen Fisher.
FISHER: I’m a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute, and I write books on love.
Fisher is also chief science advisor for the dating site Match.com. Over the years, she has learned a great deal about why people start relationships, and what happens when they fail.
FISHER: People are going to break up for very different kinds of reasons. But the brain just knows that you’ve been abandoned. And of course, there’s all kinds of cultural issues when you’ve been abandoned. I mean, you’ve lost some social ties. You might have lost a cat, the dog, even children, or your home, or economic stability, or your bicycle, or your car, or what you do on Christmas or Hanukkah, et cetera. I mean, your daily rituals are disrupted. A lot of people will regard it as a failure, and indeed it is a failure for them.
FISHER: There was a wonderful study of teenagers in college, and Roy Baumeister and others, a psychologist, asked these kids, “Have you ever dumped somebody who really loved you?” And 95 percent said yes. And then they asked, “Have you ever been dumped by somebody who you really loved?” And 93 percent said yes. Now, these kids are in college. They got another 50 years of this roller coaster.
Let’s take another step back. As we think about “how to succeed at failing,” does it make sense to consider a failed relationship and a failed startup as the same species? Do personal and professional failures even belong on the same spectrum? Amy Edmonson, the organizational psychologist, says yes.
EDMONDSON: Most — not all, but most — professional failures have an element of the personal in them. It might be that we didn’t put enough effort into it, or we missed signals that we probably should have been paying attention to, or we discounted someone else’s perspective as less valid than our own. Most of the time there is a personal, or human, occasionally character, contributor to the failure. So it’s hard to separate the professional and the personal.
DUBNER: That reminds me of something you wrote in your new book about trying to balance the life of a scholar and the life of a parent. Here, you wrote, “I’ve missed important Little League games, and disappointed both of my sons. The list goes on. And on.” How do you think about the causes and consequences of a failure like that, versus an institutional or organizational failure?
EDMONDSON: When you refer to personal life, that is one of those domains where there’s no right answer. So when I say, you know, I very likely made many decisions not to be at a Little League game where I could have been there, and largely because of work demands that seemed too important to not focus on. And then, you know, what’s the net result of that? It may be — some of it’s bad, some of it’s good. I mean, maybe my sons felt that I didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t become professional baseball players — which is true, that is factually true.
DUBNER: Although statistically improbable anyway.
EDMONDSON: Exactly. Statistically improbable anyway. And one thing I did — not by design, but inadvertently — leave them with is a model of loving your work in a way that it’s just engaging, and you sort of can’t stop thinking about it. So I don’t feel too bad about that. But we might need to interview them to know for sure.
DUBNER: For the degree to which you do feel bad, do you think it’s more because you are a mother in America versus a father?
EDMONDSON: No question about it. Some failures are objective. When the shuttle implodes upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, that is a failure, and there’s no disagreement about it. But failures in the personal realm or work-life-balance realm are utterly subjective. We are societally very likely to see it differently based on gender, based on mother or father. And we know this — something that is seen as a success or successful or appropriate or positive behavior for a father can be coded very differently for a mother.
DUBNER: When we asked listeners to submit their failure stories, one thing that jolted us was that probably 90 percent of the responses were from men. Ultimately, we went back with another callout for stories from women, because we just had so few. But it really made me wonder about how failure is perceived and perhaps discussed differently for men and women.
EDMONDSON: We don’t have what you would call scientific evidence. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence in the classroom, and also a theory.
DUBNER: Okay, let’s have it.
EDMONDSON: So, this is the unequal license to fail. And that can make, and I think does make, women more risk-averse, in boardrooms and classrooms alike. In my classroom, I have noticed over the years that women are substantially less likely to raise their hand with a mediocre comment. They put their own threshold higher. I think of a classroom — and I try to convey this very clearly to my students — as a laboratory, as a place where “Here’s where we can make mistakes, so we don’t make them out there.” The whole point of a classroom is to take risks, to get things wrong along the way to getting them right. Now, I understand it is a very social context and they want to be seen well in the eyes of others. But consistently, women act as if they’re more risk-averse. They don’t raise their hand. And then they’ll tell me that in my office, too — that they don’t want to raise their hand unless they know it’s a really good comment. And men seem to be less inhibited.
After the break: a more serious classroom failure — one of those “chain of events” tragedies.
RIEDMAN: He had the gun in his backpack.
I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio, we’ll be right back.
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Earlier, we talked with the economist John Van Reenen about failure in the context of innovation — the idea that a certain amount of failure just goes with the territory, and that a tolerance for failure may be a precondition for success. But there are some cases in which any failure is unacceptable. If you remember our series on airline travel, you know how safe it is to fly these days; that’s because the industry and its regulators decided to collaborate in order to reduce commercial airline crashes to zero. And so, today, as the C.E.O. of Delta Air Lines told us:
Ed BASTIAN: It’s safer than riding a bike, safer than driving a car, safer than crossing a street.
There are other places where you might think there would be zero tolerance for failure.
RIEDMAN: It’s very popular for organizations to describe themselves as “learning cultures.” We’re going to experiment, and we’re going to try. But school safety can’t be a learning culture, because the consequences of a failure are too serious.
That is David Riedman.
RIEDMAN: I’m the founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, and I’m the only person that records every shooting at a school in the United States.
Riedman is getting a Ph.D. in criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. But he is not one of those Ph.D. candidates who went straight from college. He grew up in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., and went to nearby Georgetown to study literature.
RIEDMAN: What happened in the middle of college is, I had been a volunteer in the fire department since I was 16 years old. And when Hurricane Katrina happened, I felt that I couldn’t be sitting in a classroom amid this national disaster. So I took a leave of absence, and I began working as a reservist for FEMA. I worked on disaster recovery and response on New Orleans. And that really started my career in emergency management, which then progressed into homeland security and intelligence. I worked in various roles on the contractor side in just about every capacity, from science and technology, through emergency planning, through intelligence analysis, monitoring watch centers. I’m really a homeland-security generalist.
If you had to sum up David Riedman’s central motivation, it might be this: protecting innocent people from terrible things.
RIEDMAN: And ultimately, that led me to the Naval Postgraduate School, where this school shooting database project started.
For years, Riedman ran the school-shooting database out of his bedroom. It will soon become part of the Violence Prevention Project Research Center at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. By now, Riedman has recorded every school shooting in the U.S. since 1966 — more than 2,600 incidents and 1,000 deaths.
RIEDMAN: The database is not just a date and a link. Each incident is carefully set up with standardized, continuous, or categorical variables. There are more than 200 different variables about the who, what, where, when, and how. But also information about the location, about the situation, the shooter, the victims, the weapons used, and then lots of pieces that add extra context within the school day. You know, where in the school building did it occur? During what period of the school day, morning classes, lunch?
Why does Riedman care about all these details? This goes back to what Ed Galea, the astrophysicist-turned-disaster-scholar, told us: that most tragedies come at the end of a chain of events. For David Riedman, assembling that chain takes a lot of time.
RIEDMAN: Oh, easily 40 hours a week. I get about 30 Google alerts every morning, at 7 a.m., and the first 90 minutes to two hours of my day are going through those Google alerts and updating the database. Transferring narrative data from a news report into relational database data that’s coded in all of these ways that can easily be sorted and filtered for just about any research question, is a time-consuming process, and something that is not easily automatable.
DUBNER: David, you sent us an email a while back. It said, “The causal chain leading up to a school shooting has dozens of events, and every single one of them needs to be a failure for the shooting to occur. Any single success would break the chain and prevent the shooting from happening.” That sounds to me like both an empirical argument and almost a philosophical argument. Can you unpack that for me? What do you mean by that?
RIEDMAN: I think that it’s both empirical, based on looking at now thousands of incidents, and philosophical because, as you said, leading up to that shooting, there’s this causal chain of actions. And with each one of those actions, there’s either a right or a wrong decision that can be made. And one right decision is going to break that chain. I think an incident that really highlights this is the Oxford High School shooting in November, 2021.
DUBNER: This is in Michigan. Oxford Township, Michigan.
RIEDMAN: In Michigan, yes. There were four students killed, seven wounded. But leading up to this attack — just four days prior — the parents bought the 15-year-old shooter a gun. And he posted pictures with it online. And then the day prior to the attack, he was caught Googling bullets. His teacher saw this and made a report of it. So everyone should have been on high alert. Students were on high alert, because there were rumors circulating of a school shooting. You get to the morning of the shooting. He’s taking a test. And on the test, he draws a picture of himself committing a school shooting. And the teacher sees this test, is clearly worried, and sends him to the guidance counselor’s office. The guidance counselor could have called police, or asked other staff members to come in and help her. The guidance counselor did a suicide screening, but she didn’t interpret the results in a way that would show that he was actively suicidal. The parents could have checked the gun safe before they got to the counselor’s office, and seen the gun was gone.
DUBNER: At this point, it was still not known that he was in possession of the gun?
RIEDMAN: Yes, Stephen. He had the gun in his backpack. And at any point, one of those adults could have looked in his backpack. His parents also could have said that he has told them that he’s actively suicidal. He was telling his parents, he was sending text messages, saying that he was having bad thoughts. He wanted to hurt himself. He wanted to hurt others. The guidance counselor then could have said, “You know, he probably shouldn’t go back to the classroom. Why doesn’t he go for a formal mental health evaluation?” And lastly, the parents could have thought, “There are all of these different things going on here. Why don’t we just take him home?” But they didn’t do that.
The shooter pleaded guilty to 24 charges, including four counts of first-degree murder. And his parents are being held in jail on charges of involuntary manslaughter; they are the first parents in the U.S. to face criminal charges for a school shooting committed by their child. They have pleaded not guilty. And the parents of one victim have filed a lawsuit against the police department for failing to intervene. The Oxford community is still waiting for the school district to publish a full report of the shooting. David Riedman thinks that school officials may have made mistakes that day — but, he says, if you take the chain-of-events approach, there’s a much bigger problem that leads to a failure like this.
RIEDMAN: We have no national guidance and no common playbook for how a school official is supposed to react to the threat of a school shooting. It’s on people to essentially make it up when they’re in these circumstances. After 9/11, the public was engaged in preventing terrorism. And we created the “See Something, Say Something” program. And every citizen knew what to look out for and knew what actions to take. And from taking those actions, you would immediately get the attention of federal resources that would make sure there was an investigation. That’s what we’ve never done in the context of school shootings. We tell people to look for red flags, but we haven’t given clear action to take. And even if that action is taken, there’s nothing to make sure that that information doesn’t fall through the cracks. There’s a multibillion-dollar school-security industry. It’s based on people’s assertions about what they think might be good ideas for school security. None of it is based on empirical evidence. Even the procedures of “run, hide, fight” are not rooted in any empirical study. On the softer side, I think that we have proven strategies and systems that could really be a model for this. We have a National Poison Control Center. It has a $25 million-per-year budget, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $3 billion that’s being spent on physical security at schools. And with the National Poison Control Center, if you’re worried that you or someone you know has ingested a poison, you can call a number from anywhere in the country and get somebody on the phone. They have expert knowledge. They’re going to give you immediate actions to take. They’re going to connect you to the resources that are around you. And they’re going to help you make a plan to get there. We could take that same model and apply it to a National Crisis Center, where we tell people to look for red flags.
DUBNER: So let me ask a few questions about that. First of all, what you’re describing would be — I mean, what’s your generic or descriptive term for what you are seeking here, what you’re advocating? Is it like a red-flag system for school shootings?
RIEDMAN: I think the National Crisis Center would be more than school shootings, even more than mass shootings. Because what we’ve seen leading up to a mass shooting or leading up to a school shooting is a person who’s in crisis, and they’re actively suicidal. And within that umbrella of somebody being suicidal and in crisis, you can also have self-harm, you can have physical and psychological abuse, you can have substance abuse. And this would be a resource that would provide services across all of those different major issues. A one-stop resource where somebody who is concerned that they’re seeing the red flags in a friend or classmate or coworker can go and get assistance and get a plan of action. That is paired with investment in community-crisis intervention training as well as violence-interruption programs, because we know that community-violence interruption programs have been successful to prevent shootings.
DUBNER: Isn’t it a little bit shocking that there have been so many school shootings, and something like this hasn’t happened yet?
RIEDMAN: It is. Really, the biggest objection is the thought that if there’s a tip line and red-flag laws, that that will lead to guns being taken away from somebody — that if you have a widely available system of reporting, that somebody who is an innocent gun owner will have an anonymous report made against them, and then have their gun seized.
DUBNER: And how would you respond to that critique? What would you put in place to prevent that?
RIEDMAN: I think that that’s a very difficult policy question to answer, because it comes down to the philosophical point of: do you care about public good, or do you care about your individual freedoms? And I try to look at history, and look at the context for these events. And following Ruby Ridge and Waco and Oklahoma City, we put very significant restrictions on who is allowed to buy explosives. But I fear that this is an issue that’s far too polarized. And I get death threats just for reporting school shootings.
DUBNER: Can you describe one?
RIEDMAN: Oh, yeah. I get emails that say, “We’re going to find you, and you’ll be eviscerated in front of your family.” So, you know, it’s a very careful path that one has to walk. And I really try to objectively report a problem that is in every community and every part of the country over now a 60-year period of modern history. And I do that in really an objective manner that can be studied for just about any research purposes. I’m also extraordinarily hopeful because far more shootings are averted than attacks that happen. So just last month, at a high school in Ohio, a student walked into the bathroom, and he found a bullet that was sitting upright on the toilet seat. And he knew that something was wrong. So he went, and he found the school resource officer, the vice principal, the principal, and a teacher, and told all of them there’s a problem, because he wanted to make sure that he was heard. And they took him seriously. They watched the surveillance footage, figured out which student had left the bathroom. And they detained a student, and in his backpack, he had a loaded handgun, three loaded magazines, a hit list, and a written plan to commit a shooting that day. And that is because these mass shootings and these school shootings are public suicides, and somebody is going to cry for help until the moment right before the attack. And that bullet was left there hoping somebody would find it. And that’s the opportunity that we have. If somebody knows what to do, and has someone to talk to, we can prevent almost every one of these attacks.
Riedman has collaborated with other academic researchers — including Jill Peterson and James Densely, co-founders of the The Violence Prevention Project Research Center. In 2021, they published a book called The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.
RIEDMAN: For their book, they interviewed convicted mass shooters in jail. And one of the questions that they asked each person they interviewed is who could have prevented this shooting? And the answer they got was anyone could have prevented the shooting. I think that’s why we need this system, where the public knows the red flags, knows that there’s somebody in crisis, and then has a system to get that person help. There’s a gentleman named Aaron Stark, and he did a TED talk about when he plotted a school shooting when he was in high school. He was a victim of serious abuse at home, and he thought that this school shooting would be something that would finally really get back at his parents. He had bought the gun, and he had the plan. And there was one classmate who reached out to him and said, “Why don’t you come over to my house and have some lunch and let me get you a clean shirt?” And that one act of kindness showed him that his life had value. And he never committed that shooting.
We reached out to Aaron Stark to see if he’d give his recollections.
Aaron STARK: Absolutely. My name is Aaron Stark, and I am currently an assistant manager at Kum & Go here in Denver, Colorado. I have a wife and four kids, and I’m also a public speaker who flies around the country talking because when I was a teenager, I used to be a school shooter.
So what was Stark thinking at the time?
STARK: I was going to cause as much damage as possible, kill as many people as possible, including myself. But the actual targets, I wanted to make my parents deal with making me. I wanted to make them deal with creating a monster.
And what kind of lessons does Aaron Stark think we should take from his story?
STARK: I would say the biggest lessons learned from my story are to remember that up until the point that the kid actually pulls the trigger, that he can be helped, that he can be reached. That that is a kid that is falling down a path of destruction. He hasn’t reached the end yet. And until you reach the end, you can still be pulled off of it. And that the biggest thing that helped me was simple human compassion, simple connection. It wasn’t someone coming to me with a program and someone coming to me with this project. It was a friend sitting down next to me and treating me like I was a human. I was covered in dirt and blood and nastiness and chaos, and he still treated me like I was a kid. And that, to me, is the important thing we need to do. The failure that happens is trying to mitigate the after-effects, and trying to stop the damage afterwards, and trying to put in all these Band-Aids to try to make the adults feel better. If you talk to a kid in class, they know what kids in their class are super depressed, what ones are on the edge, what ones are living in hell, which ones are very abused, which ones are very aggressive and stuck up, and which ones have borderline personality disorders, which ones are just having anxiety issues, and need to have more care. No one ever talks to the kids who actually have the problem. No one ever digs in to the actual human behind any of the story.
Here’s David Riedman again, the school-shooting researcher:
RIEDMAN: And I think that that’s what we’re missing. In fortification of the schools, in adding school police officers, in creating all of these levels of fortresses around schools and public spaces, the person that ultimately wants to commit a mass shooting is somebody who’s very, very deeply hurt. And rather than trying to keep that person further out, and demonize that person even further, if we can just show them a tiny bit of kindness, you know, a lot of these shootings would never happen. Probably none of these shootings would happen.
David Riedman, when he was in high school, had his own terrifying experience with a series of shootings.
RIEDMAN: In October 2002, there were 17 different random sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area, and there was no clue as to why they were happening and where the next one was going to be. So there were two gentlemen, one older, one a teenager. The older man was the car driver. The younger man laid in the back and fired through a hole that they had made in the trunk. And they drove to random locations and shot people. And they were only caught when they started leaving clues, which eventually led to their arrest. And that was three weeks where, really, going to school every day there was genuine fear that you weren’t going to come home. We left the school in groups of five, running in a zigzag pattern. And that really framed, I think, a lot of my future experiences around school shootings and gun violence.
If you look at the long arc of David Riedman’s career — as someone who wants to protect innocent people from terrible things — you see that it, too, was a long chain of events. The fear that fueled him in high school, the fear of tragedy, has driven him to prevent as many tragedies as he can. This is an absolute reverse image of the chain of events that create so many tragedies, so many failures (as we’ve been calling them today). The fact that we humans are capable of this, too — of creating a virtuous circle, rather than a vicious circle — is testimony to the fact that failure is not inevitable. So let’s keep figuring it out, together.
Next week, in part 2 of “How to Succeed at Failing”:
EDMONDSON: I just went from the blameworthy end all the way over to the praiseworthy end.
What if we could think of failure as a spectrum? Also: a Nobel Prize was just awarded for a scientific triumph that for decades had been considered a failure:
Bob LANGER: Research on messenger RNA itself started in 1961.
That’s next time on the show. Until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
- Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership management at Harvard Business School.
- Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and chief science advisor to Match.com.
- Ed Galea, founding director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich.
- Gary Klein, cognitive psychologist and pioneer in the field of naturalistic decision making.
- David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database.
- Aaron Stark, assistant manager at Kum & Go and keynote speaker.
- John Van Reenen, professor at the London School of Economics.
- Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, by Amy Edmondson (2023).
- “Michigan School Shooter Is Found Eligible for Life Sentence Without Parole,” by Stephanie Saul and Dana Goldstein (The New York Times, 2023).
- “How Fire Turned Lahaina Into a Death Trap,” by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Serge F. Kovaleski, Shawn Hubler, and Riley Mellen (The New York Times, 2023).
- The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic, by Jillian Peterson and James Densley (2021).
- “I Was Almost A School Shooter,” by Aaron Stark (TEDxBoulder, 2018).
- The Innovation and Diffusion Podcast, by John Van Reenen and Ruveyda Gozen.
- “Is Perfectionism Ruining Your Life?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Why Did You Marry That Person?” by Freakonomics Radio (2022).
- “What Do We Really Learn From Failure?” by No Stupid Questions (2021).
- “How to Fail Like a Pro,” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “Failure Is Your Friend,” by Freakonomics Radio (2014).