To understand failure, you first have to understand your own reactions to failure. Reactions to failure are typically:

Retrospective. They arise from your ability to look back on a sequence of events.

Counterfactual. They lay out what people could or should have done to avoid the outcome that you now know about.

Judgmental. They judge people for not doing what you believe they should have done, or for not paying enough attention to what you now know is important.

Proximal. They focus on those people closest in time and place to (preventing) the mishap.

A Navy submarine crashed into a Japanese fishing vessel near Hawaii, sinking it and killing nine Japanese men and boys. The submarine, on a tour to show civilians its capabilities, was demonstrating an “emergency blow”—a rapid resurfacing. Time had been running short and the crew, crowded in the submarine’s control room with 16 visitors, conducted a hurried periscope check to scan the ocean surface. Critical sonar equipment onboard the submarine was inoperative at the time.

The more you react to failure, the less you will understand it.

The commander’s superior, an admiral, expressed shock over the accident. He was puzzled, since the waters off Hawaii are among the easiest areas in the world to navigate. According to the admiral, the commander should not have felt any pressure to return on schedule. At one of the hearings after the accident, the admiral looked at the commander in the courtroom and said, “I’d like to go over there and punch him for not taking more time.” As the admiral saw it, the commander alone was to blame for the accident—civilians onboard had nothing to do with it, and neither had inoperative sonar equipment.