Climbing the mountain

When I was in high school, I attended a Jewish weekend retreat in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec1. While most of the attendees were secular Jews like me, one of them was a Chabadnik, and several us got into a discussion about Judaism and scholarship.

One of the secular Jews lamented that it was an insurmountable task to properly understand Judaism: there were just too many texts you had to study. If we were lucky, we knew a little Hebrew, but certainly not enough to study the Hebrew texts (let alone the texts in other languages!).

The Chabadnik offered the following metaphor. Imagine a mountain, with an impossibly high peak. Studying Judaism is like climbing the mountain. People who have previously studied material will be higher up on the mountain than those who haven’t studied as much. However, regardless of your current elevation, you can always climb higher than where you are, by studying material appropriate for your level.

So it is with learning more about resilience engineering. Fortunately for those who seek to learn more about resilience, it’s a much younger field than Judaism. You need contend with only decades of scholarship, rather than centuries. Still, being confronted with decades of research papers can be intimidating. But don’t let that stop you from trying to learn just a little bit more than you currently know.

I once heard Richard Cook say that the most effective way to get better at analyzing incidents was to first study how incidents happen in a field other than your own. Most of us will never have the opportunity to devote years of study to a different field! On the other hand, he also said that having a ten-to-fifteen-minute huddle after an incident to discuss what happened can also be a very effective learning mechanism.

You don’t need to read mountains of papers to start getting better at learning from incidents. It can be as simple as asking different kinds of questions in retrospectives (e.g., “When you saw the alert go off, what did you do next?”). One of the things I really like about resilience engineering is how it values expertise borne out of experience. I think you’ll learn more by trying out different questions to ask in incident retros than you will from reading the papers. (Although reading the papers will eventually help you ask better questions).

Diane Vaughan, a sociology researcher, spent six years studying a single incident! That’s a standard that none of us can hope to meet. And that means we won’t obtain the depth of insight that Vaughan was able to in her investigation, but that’s ok.

Don’t be intimidated by the height of the mountain. Don’t worry about reaching the top (there isn’t one), or even reaching a certain height. The important thing is to ascend: to work to climb higher than you currently are.

1 I attended a Jewish elementary school, but a public high school. In high school, my parents encouraged me to attend these sorts of programs to maintain some semblance of Jewish identity.