What we can learn from aviation to better our lives – Making your mind a black box

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash
„Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.“ — John F. Kennedy (U.S. president, 1917–1963)

In our education system, whenever we screwed up we were punished by a bad grade. The teacher told us that we should have tried harder, parents were mad at us for not studying enough, grandparents asking themselves if their grandchild will ever amount to anything.

As a result we grow up thinking that to fail is the worst thing we can do, not just to ourselves, but to our parents, to our grandparents, to society itself even.

So we avoid it.

So many people are afraid of failure, they accept not trying in the first place. This is also, why so many people are stuck at a point in life, where they feel miserable.

Too afraid of failure, people are working a job they hate, living in a relationship that has fallen apart long before and trying to forget all that by sitting down in front of the TV in the afternoon, to watch a movie about a person with a more interesting life.

„I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret those I haven’t done.“ — Lucille Ball (American actress 1911–1989)

Yes, yes. I’ll stop with the quotes you’ve heard a thousand times before.

The thing is… Failure is the key to success, and if we don’t embrace it, we can never really advance in life. 

The world of aviation has known that for a long time now.

The de Havilland Comet 1, taken from the Clinton H Groves collection

Look at this picture. There is something unusual about this plane.

The de Havilland Comet 1 went down in history due to a series of unexplained crashes. The fleet was put under a flying ban. The problem was… There was no problem. At least non that could be found. So the ban was lifted.

Only two weeks later another plane burst in mid-air. That was the last time a Comet 1 lifted off the ground.

A while later the problem was found in the rectangular windows. They led to tiny cracks in the body that made the plane burst during the flight.

The result? Have you ever looked through a rectangular window on a plane?

[…] almost every procedure we have, almost every rule in the Federal Aviation rule book, almost every bit of knowledge we have is because someone, somewhere died. — Capt. Sullenberger

Not only did the Comet 1 disasters lead to the round windows we know from planes nowadays, it also lead to another big adjustment.

David Warren (1925–2010), an Australian engineer living in the U.K. suggested to put a flight recorder into every airplane. The plan was to make it record every bit of communication, all the data about the plane many times every second while itself being almost impossible to destroy.

There you have it. This genius idea lead to what we now commonly know as the black box to be born.

From that point onward, whenever a plane crashed, be it either through a mistake that was made by a pilot or a mechanical problem, it was recorded, it was looked at and the world of aviation figured out a way for that problem not to happen again.

Pilot’s error? Implementing a checklist to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Mechanical problem? Exchange the parts that lead to the failure or put the fleet under flying ban.

Except for my own travel, I don’t have a background in aviation. I come from a different field. If you have read my stuff before you might already know that I used to be an anesthetist and in anesthesia, we adapted a lot of this thinking for our own needs.

Before I started inducing the narcosis, we always went through a standardized checklist, making sure the patient is hooked up to our monitoring correctly, making sure the monitor works, making sure the respirator is functional and tested, making sure we have all the right drugs we need ready, making sure the i.v. works etc. etc.

If something wasn’t checked off the list, we wouldn’t start until it was.

People had died because of respirator tubes not being plugged in correctly, people have died because of wrong drugs that shouldn’t have been given. In the history of anesthesia many people have died from many things. Just as in aviation.

But we learned from that. And the result, to calm you down again before your next surgery, is that nowadays the ride to the hospital in the car is usually more dangerous than the anesthesia itself.

Embracing failure can be powerful.


So what can we learn from that?

We need to implement our own black box for our lives. 

The quote from above was by Capt. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger. He was the pilot that landed his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009.

He said that he was only possible to perform this maneuver successfully, because through the embracing of errors in the world of aviation, only because many planes had crashed and many people died, only through so many failures in the history of flight, he knew how to proceed.

So for our lives we need to stop fearing failure and embracing it.


Failures are a great thing with the right mindset.

Failures are actually the best thing to happen to you since sliced bread when

  • You accept that everybody fails all the time.
  • You realize that somebody is only better than you at something because they failed many more times than you at the same thing.
  • You break down the reason WHY you screwed up and correct it next time.

So whenever you screw up evaluate and correct it next time.

Failed at a test? Figure out what to learn to pass next time.

Failed your relationship? Figure out what needs to be different for it to work out next time.

Write it down. Write down everything. Use a notebook or a note-taking app of your choice. I use Evernote for my purposes but there are so many options for it, just choose whichever suits you best.

Write it down and look back at it later. Figure out where your problem was and at the next attempt, just remove this error. If you fail again you remove the next error. Fail over and over again and at some point, when you’ve removed all the problems that hindered you in reaching your goal, you will eventually win.

That’s all it is. Radical acceptance of failure. Radical acceptance of the fact that it’s only up to you and no one else if you win or lose. 

I’ll end this article today with a quote by my fellow countryman Arnold Schwarzenegger. Often belittled for his funny accent, this guy wasn’t just a huge mountain of muscle. He has made a fortune in not one but three careers.

First he became the world’s best bodybuilder.

Then he became a world famous actor.

Then he became a successful politician.

Most people don’t even make it in just one of these three careers. His attitude towards success through failure is not just impressive, but actually incredibly wise. Here you go:

„Anything I’ve ever attempted, I was always willing to fail. So you can’t always win, but don’t afraid of making decisions. You can’t be paralyzed by fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision and you know that it is the right thing to do, and success will come. So don’t be afraid to fail.“ — Arnold Schwarzenegger

Making your mind a black box and embracing failure is a huge step towards living a fulfilled and happy life.

It’s actually our ONLY option if we don’t want to trapped living life inside a cage we never dare to escape.

From the inside it might look dangerous out there. After all, it’s a shit life inside, but at least it’s safe.

But it’s only when you take responsibility, accept failure as a means to succeed and step out of that prison that you realize all the possibilities the world has to offer.


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