Critical Self Analysis

Posted on May 27, 2013

I’m just back from continuing professional development sessions at the International Federation of Mountain Guides meetings in Whistler. What we did in one of these sessions was to look at a number of case studies of past accidents to see what we could learn from them.

What I came away from these sessions with, aside from the usual excellent lessons, were some more general thoughts and reminders about how important it is to look back and learn. It is one thing to say that we will learn from our "mistakes" and another to take a concerted and systematic approach to that learning. Here are some thoughts on that that I would like to share with you.

Objectivity: Whenever we look back at accidents or incidents as much as possible it is important that we do our best to stand back from the situation and try to assess it objectively. This means identifying the biases that we come to the situation with (a big one to deal with here is often our own ego and the desire to be “right”) and to try to assess the events as much as possible as an unbiased third party observer might.

Acknowledgement of emotions: To achieve the kind of objectivity that we are aiming for as described above I think we first need to acknowledge all of the emotions that come along with accidents and incidents and to accept these as being completely normal responses. Shame and guilt are common emotions associated with incidents and accidents particularly if we were in a leadership role when something went wrong. Acknowledging and allowing ourselves to experience these emotions is a very important first step allowing us to then look at the situation more objectively and allowing earning to happen.

Withholding blame: To allow ourselves and others to learn we have to be willing to suspend the desire to place blame on others or on ourselves. Blaming is a convenient short cut in assessing accidents but it limits our ability to deeply examine the events that lead to accidents and to learn from them.

Looking for positive outcomes: This has to be the fundamental purpose of our investigations, to learn and to get better.

I have a nine year old son and you may not be surprised to know that I encourage him to engage risk. I do so because I believe that we can not learn to become solid decision makers around risk if we do not explore risk and learn where “the lines are” around risk by “feeling the edges of them”. Toward this end when my little boy wants to blame himself when things go wrong I try to remind him: “What you did was not a mistake if you learn from it so that you can do things differently next time”. Rather than “mistakes” I prefer to refer to his explorations as “learning opportunities”.

Philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Perhaps a simpler version for us as risk takers and lovers of the mountain environment could be “Learn from your experiences”.

Enjoy the mountains this spring, enjoy the risk, manage it and learn from it.

Jan