Winners are made from losers says BSAVA Congress keynote speaker

9 April 2019

Winners aren’t born – they are made from losers with the self-awareness to examine their own shortcomings and work hard to overcome them, BSAVA members heard at the Congress opening ceremony yesterday.

Matthew Syed, author, journalist and former Olympic table tennis star, was the keynote speaker at this year’s BSAVA Congress. He highlighted the psychological and cultural factors that shape high performance in sport, science and many other fields.

He said people have two ways of looking at success. It is either fixed by talent, predisposition and intelligence or it is something that will grow through discipline, practice and self-evaluation.

When ghost-writing the ‘autobiography’ of footballer David Beckham, his subject insisted that his legendary free kick-taking skills were a result of hours of practice rather than innate ability, Syed explained.

Beckham was also a shining example of the virtues of resilience, he noted. After being viciously pilloried for being sent off after kicking an Argentinian opponent in the 1998 World Cup last sixteen, he put the experience behind him and went on to win the treble with his club team. “You make a mistake, you learn a lesson and you never make that error again – that is what life is about” the surprisingly introspective footballer and fashion icon told him.

A similar ability to learn from mistakes has cut the numbers of people dying in accidents in the aviation industry to a fraction of the figures 50 years ago. This was achieved by encouraging a culture in which staff are willing to report near-miss events, Syed said.

That transparent approach contrasts badly with that of the healthcare industry, he observed. Just few years ago, 45,000 people a year in the US died from central line infections because senior doctors would not admit to mistakes. Self-justification and error concealment was – and to some extent – is still a key characteristic of the medical profession, he claimed.

As in many other professions, senior doctors will not admit to errors because they fear that they will be punished. But change can occur when the system encourages the adoption of a ‘no blame culture’.

“Reporting of safety critical information is undermined in a culture where professional feel they will be unfairly sanctioned,” he said.

Syed argued that a dominance hierarchy and the uncritical acceptance of the views of senior members of the group will have had a survival benefit in the evolutionary past but it has no place in a complex modern world.

So respect for the knowledge acquired by senior members of a professional team should not prevent their colleagues from offering opinions on solving a shared problem. “Expertise is not about how much we know – it’s about finding out what we don’t know,” he said.