Where were you on January 28, 1986?
If you’re American, and you were older than six at the time, the chances are that you know the answer to that question.
On that morning, the space shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven members of its crew.
A special commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan determined that the explosion resulted from a catastrophic flaw in what are called the “O-rings.” These rings are like rubber bands that seal the joints of the solid rocket boosters that launch the shuttle and prevent hot gases from entering into it.
The problem with the O-rings wasn’t new. NASA had been flying its shuttles with damaged O-rings as far back as 1981. Engineering documents described the O-ring erosion as an “acceptable risk,” the standard way of doing business. As one flight after another was completed successfully despite dangerous levels of erosion, NASA began to develop institutional tunnel vision.
The anomaly eventually became the norm.
Seventeen years later, it happened again.
On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia blew up, killing all seven astronauts onboard. This time around, the culprit was a large piece of foam that had separated from the shuttle’s external fuel tank during its lift-off and struck its left wing, leaving a gaping hole in the thermal insulation.
The foam debris had struck and damaged the shuttle in the past numerous times. These launches were all characterized as successes since the damage from the foam didn’t compromise mission safety. As a result, “foam shedding,” as it was internally called at NASA, became an acceptable way of doing business, despite the serious risks it presented.
NASA was able to successfully launch numerous shuttle missions, despite the erosion of the O-rings before Challenger and despite the foam shedding before Columbia.
In each case, success created complacency with the status quo. Success boosted egos. Success put blinders on the most capable engineers and managers working at NASA.
When we succeed, we assume that everything went according to plan. When we’re too busy lighting cigars, we fail to see that we succeeded despite making a mistake or despite taking a serious risk. We ignore the warning signs, the near-misses, and the necessity for change. We chalk up our successes to our skills and genius even where blind luck deserves the credit.
Just because you’re on a hot streak doesn’t mean you’ll beat the house.
The moment we think we’ve made it is the moment we stop learning and growing. When we’re in the lead, we assume we know the answers, so we don’t listen. When we think we’re destined for greatness, we start blaming others if things don’t go as planned. When we declare ourselves to be an expert on something, we begin asserting confident conclusions without bothering to gather all of the facts. We launch shuttle missions despite glaring problems with the spacecraft.
The author Elizabeth Gilbert sums up the same sentiment in her brilliant TED talk: “Creativity,” she says “must survive its own success.”
You must survive your own success.
The next time you’re tempted to start popping champagne corks following a victory, stop and pause for a moment. Ask yourself, What went wrong with this success? What role did luck, opportunity, and privilege play? What can I learn from it?
And the next time you’re tempted to fear failure, keep in mind the words of English author Dean Inge: Nothing fails like success.
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Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned author and law professor. He has been featured on BBC, TIME, CNN, Washington Post, Slate, and Foreign Policy. He writes about contrarian thinking at http://ozanvarol.com.
Originally published at ozanvarol.com on September 26, 2018.