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Learning from Others’ Mistakes: The Power of Context-Rich “Second” Stories

Proper storytelling is a key to learning from the mistakes of others. Human Factors consultant and educator Gareth Lock explains the power of context-rich stories to inform and help us to develop the non-technical skills needed to make better decisions, communicate more clearly, and lead/teach more effectively.

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by Gareth Lock
Header image courtesy of Gareth Lock
. Divers from Red Sea Explorers’ examining a magnificent gorgonian coral.

Diving can be a fun, sociable, and peaceful activity; it can be challenging and technically difficult; and it can be a way of escaping the hustle and bustle of modern life. Sometimes new wrecks are discovered, caves have new line laid in them, new encounters with wildlife are experienced, and in many cases, courses are completed where both instructors and students have learned something new. 

However, it can also be scary, harrowing and frightening if things don’t go to plan or if the plan was flawed in the first place. 

Fortunately, the majority of dives which take place are the former and we consider the outcomes to be positive. If we think about it, the goal for every dive should be to surface, having had an enjoyable time, with gas reserves intact and no-one feeling physically or emotionally injured. But how do we achieve this goal considering the inherent risks we face while diving? 

The easy answer would be to have effective training, to have the correct equipment, and to have and apply the right mindset. These three things together then lead to safe diving practices. You could say that the majority of safe diving practices and safely designed and configured equipment comes from feedback following accidents, incidents, and near misses. You only have to look at the work which the late, famed cave explorer Sheck Exley did in terms of cave diving fatalities and his “Blueprint for Survival” to see how procedures and equipment have evolved.

What do we learn?

There are accident and incident reports available to us. What do we learn from them? Bearing in mind that the majority of reports which divers see are either in social media or summarised in reports like the Divers Alert Network Annual Incident Report or the BS-AC Annual Incident Report.

For example, the following incident reports are written in a style similar to those you would find on social media or in an organization’s incident report.   

An inexperienced diver entered the water to provide support for a guided dive to 24m. They got separated from their buddy, made a rapid ascent to the surface after nearly running out of gas. They were recovered on the boat without any symptoms of DCS being present.

A diver on the final dive of a rebreather training course entered the water from a dive boat. The diver swam to the side of the boat to receive their bailout cylinder to clip on. While sorting their gear out alongside the boat, they appeared to go unconscious and descend below the surface. The diver was recovered from 38 m/124 ft and despite CPR and first aid being applied, they were pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital ER. On inspection, the oxygen cylinder on their rebreather was found to be turned off and the controller logs showed that the pO2 had dropped to 0.05 while they were on the surface.

How much learning do you get from these reports? What emotions did you feel while reading them? What did you think was the primary cause of each of these events? If you were to choose two or three words to describe the causes, what would they be? 

Human error? Complacency? Inexperience? Rushing? Not paying attention? Overconfidence? Naivety? Arrogance? Stupidity? Who was it? Where was the instructor? Were they certified? Which agency? Were they qualified?

All of these are normal responses, and they make up the first story.

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Photo courtesy of 123rf Image Library

The First Story

The first story is the narrative we hear, and we start to make immediate judgments on. We can’t help making judgments, even when we try not to. We make judgments because we compare the stories we’ve just read or heard to our own previous experiences. We match patterns to what we ‘know’ and then fill in the gaps with what we think happened, all the time thinking about whether it was the ‘right thing’ to do based on our own experiences.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

This ‘filling in gaps’ is normal human behavior. Because our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the situation when we don’t have enough information about a scene or a situation, we reflect on what we’ve seen, read, and heard in the past and then make a best guess or closest fit. During this process, we will be subject to a number of biases, and one of the strongest at this stage is called confirmation bias. This is where we think we know the answer to the question, then as we read or hear something in the story that aligns with our reasoning, we stop looking any further because we have confirmed our suspicions.

In many cases, we carry on and don’t think anything of the learning opportunities presented because we know what happened, we know that ‘we wouldn’t do that’ because we would have spotted the issue before it became critical. We often make use of counterfactuals (could have, should have, and would have) to describe how the incident could have been prevented.



Unfortunately, this means that often we don’t learn. There is a difference between a lesson identified and a lesson learned—a lesson learned is where we make a conscious decision to accept how we do things based on the conditions and outcomes, or we actually put something in place which is different than what was there before and see how effective it is to resolve the problem encountered. 

If we are to make improvements, we need to look at the errors, mistakes, and deviations that were made. However, we must recognize that errors are outcomes, not causes of adverse events. If we want to stop an adverse event from occurring, we need to look closer at the conditions which led to the error occurring i.e., the error-producing conditions. 

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Extracted from INPO/DOE Human Performance Improvement Handbook Vol 1 – The Human Diver.

The easiest way to look for error-producing conditions in an event that has already happened is to get those involved to tell context-rich stories. This becomes the second story.

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Photo courtesy of 123rf Image Library.

The Second Story

Second stories look much deeper than what we first hear. They look at the context, the local rationality, the conditions, especially those conditions which might lead to errors. Ultimately, they expose the inherent weakness and gaps in any system, where the system includes people, paperwork, equipment, relationships, the environment and their interactions. 

Second stories also highlight how divers and instructors are constantly adapting and changing their behaviors/actions to deal with the dynamic nature of diving. They describe ‘normal work’. This adaptation could be moving dive sites, increasing or reducing the time for a course, the order in which skills are taught or the amount of gas used/planned for a dive. Second stories describe the difference between ‘Work as Imagined’, which is what is written down, what is expected to happen, and against which compliance is assessed, and ‘Work as Done’ which is what actually happens in the real world and takes into account the pressures, drivers, and constraints which are faced by those on the dive or the course.

The easiest way to see what a second story looks like is to tell it, and the following account is the same recreational event as above but told as a second story. 

An Advanced Open Water (AOW) diver with around 50 dives was acting as an ‘assistant’ to the instructor and dive-centre owner on a guided dive with five Open Water (OW) divers and recent graduates from the school they themselves had learned at. The AOW diver felt a social obligation to help the Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI) who was leading the dive, because the OWSI had done so much to help her conquer her fear of mask-clearing during her own training. However, she was also wary that, over time, her role had moved from being a diver on the trip to being almost the divemaster by helping other divers out, which she wasn’t trained to do. In addition, the instructor regularly asked her, at the last minute, to help out and change teams to ensure the ‘experience’ dives happened.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

On this particular occasion, the AOW diver was buddied with a low-skilled OW diver who acted arrogantly and did not communicate well. In fact, she didn’t believe that three of the five on this trip should have received their OW certificates, given their poor in-water skills. As they approached the dive site, the visibility could be seen to be poor from the boat and the surface conditions weren’t great. The instructor said to the AOW diver, “Don’t lose the divers. I want you at the back shepherding them.”

They entered the water and descended to 24 m/78 ft and made their way in the poor visibility. On two occasions, the OW buddy had to be brought back down by the AOW diver as they ascended out of control. At one point, the OW diver turned around quickly and accidently knocked the AOW diver into the reef. Unfortunately, the AOW diver became entangled in some line there, and the OW diver swam off oblivious to the entanglement. When the five divers and instructor reached the shot-line ready to ascend, the instructor realized the AOW diver was missing. The instructor couldn’t trust the five divers to ascend on their own and didn’t have enough time to wait at the bottom and conduct a search, so the six ascended. On the surface, the buddied OW diver said that the AOW diver had swum off looking at fish in a certain area.

In the meantime, the AOW diver had managed to free herself; but in her panic, while stuck on the bottom, she breathed her gas down to almost zero and had to do a rapid ascent. She surfaced, feeling very scared and sick with panic, just as the instructor was speaking to the other six on the surface. On seeing the AOW diver break the surface, the instructor swam to her but turned and shouted at the other divers, admonishing them for abandoning their buddy on the bottom. The AOW diver felt very alone and wanted to give up diving as she was not given the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

Observations on potential contributory factors and error-producing conditions:

  • Deviation of standards on the part of the instructor/dive-center owner taking OW divers to 24 m/78 ft, maybe driven because of the need to generate revenue and offer something unique.
  • Authority gradient between the instructor and AOW diver meant that the AOW diver felt they couldn’t end the dive before they even got in the water or once in the water.
  • Inferred peer pressure to help out when they weren’t qualified or experienced enough to act in a supervisory role.
  • Poor technical skills on the part of the OW divers and the AOW limited their situation awareness to be aware of hazards and risks.
  • Limited awareness on the part of the instructor regarding the location of all the divers during the dive.
  • Positive note – good decision on the part of the instructor to ascend with the five OW divers in poor conditions and not keep them on the bottom or get them to ascend on their own.

A full account of the second event can be found here where you can also download a guide which contains more detail than the video covers and also gives you details on how to run a learning event at your dive center or in your own classes.

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We can see that the learning opportunities have increased in the second stories. They allow certain issues to be identified like time pressures, financial pressures, peer-pressure, authority gradient, teamwork, leadership, decision-making and situation awareness. These aspects are rarely captured or recounted in the narratives we see online or in incident reports. There are a number of reasons: 

  • They are often considered ‘common sense’, 
  • Our brains are constantly looking for simple answers to complicated or complex problems, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to find an individual or piece of equipment to ‘blame’ rather than look wider.
  • Those involved don’t consider these factors to be important so they don’t write them down.
  • Those involved don’t know about these error-producing conditions or human factors so they don’t know to include them.
  • There is no formalised and structured investigation process for diving incidents by diving organisations to facilitate the capture, analysis and sharing of second stories.

Telling second stories isn’t enough to create learning though. We have to work out how to change our own behaviors, and that is where the free materials and courses which The Human Diver provides come in. They help develop these non-technical skills in divers, instructors, instructor trainers, and dive center managers/owners to help them make better decisions, communicate more clearly and lead/teach more effectively. Ultimately, it is about having more fun on the dive, and ending each dive with the goal described at the start of this article intact and creating learning in the process.


Since 2011, Gareth has been on a mission to take the human factors and crew resource management lessons learned from his 25 year military aviation career and apply it to diving. In 2016, he formed The Human Diver with the goal to bring human factors, non-technical skills and a Just Culture to the diving industry via a number of different online and face-to-face programmes. Since then, he has trained more than 350 divers from across the globe in face-to-face programmes and nearly 1500 people are subscribed to his online micro-class. In March 2019, he published ‘Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors’ which has sold more than 4000 copies and on 20 May 2020, the documentary ‘If Only…’ was released which tells the story of a tragic diving accident through the lens of human factors and a Just Culture. He has presented around the globe at dive shows and conferences to share his passion and knowledge. He has also acted as a subject matter expert on a number of military diving incidents and accidents focusing on the role of human factors.

Cave

Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community

In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.

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by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations  that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.

In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered

He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game:  “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.

Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.

When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.

Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by  his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:

“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”

The Torbet Method for Managing Stress  

Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”  

Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:

“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.” 

Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.” 



There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,

“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment.  I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”

In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques. 

A Team of One?

Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations. 

Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay. 

In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces,  the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]

“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.” 

After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double. 

Stunt Doubles 

Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.

Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start. 

Why does he love being part of the stunt community? 

“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.” 

A Perspective on life 

 Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.

“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.

I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”  

Additional Resources:

Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet

Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet 

Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet

Rising: Meet The Man Who Dives 100m Deep Into Caves One Kilometre Underground

Dive Odyssey—A meditative journey into the depths of water and mind

Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!

Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.

I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving. 



Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion.  You can sign up for my newsletter here.

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