Captain Hindsight

There’s a character from the popular sitcom South Park called Captain Hindsight. For those who’ve not seen it, Captain Hindsight is a super hero (of sorts) who shows up to the scene of a disaster while it’s taking place. He then “helps” the people in need by making a stirring speech about all the ways everyone should have acted to prevent the tragedy from happening in the first place. Afterwards he flies away while everyone cheers hysterically, despite the fact he didn’t actually help anyone.

The reason I love this skit is because of how accurately it portrays our society at large. The way we all love to have such strong opinions after the fact. The way we complain about how our government has failed us or how incompetent our colleagues were, before declaring how they should have done this, that or what-the-fuck ever. All without doing diddly-squat except have an opinion (says the man sitting behind a keyboard).

Of course talking about lessons we sorely need to learn isn’t a problem, but I do believe the way we seek to attribute blame is. The way we like to sit on our high horse of righteousness and declare how superior we are. How we go on the offensive instead of looking to assume any kind of collective responsibility for our current state of affairs. 

I believe this kind of blame culture blinds us. 

For one, those who are responsible become less inclined to own that responsibility, to put up their hand when they’ve made a mistake. They also play the blame game in an attempt to deflect any shame placed on them by others. It also blinds those who point the finger from understanding how they might have been complicit. Like blaming those who voted for such and such instead of acknowledging the role they had avoiding difficult conversations in the past, or how looking down on others has only strengthened respective positions and deepened the divide…

Anyway this got me thinking, maybe part of our problem is the way we think about hindsight. The idea that hindsight is always 20/20. That maybe it would be better for all us to consider the possibility our hindsight isn’t nearly as clear sighted as we think. To think that maybe hindsight is rarely 20/20.

With that in mind I want to tell you a little story. 

Earlier this year while flying an approach my crew and I found ourselves in a spot of bother after a number of events left us high on final approach. As a result of then having to ‘capture the approach path from above,’ we ended up busting our stabilised approach criteria. To put it simply, we were too fast. 

In our attempt to configure the aircraft and “get the job done,” however, we became distracted and missed the check height at which we should have gone around (abandoned the approach). Instead we continued to landing. 

Now I should stress that the speed came back and we landed safely. We got everything done, just later than we should have. But that’s not the point. The right recourse was to go around and we didn’t. It was a honest mistake but, there’s no two ways about it, we fucked up. (And cue Captain Hindsight to tell us exactly what we should have done).

About a week later, back in Hong Kong, the rest of the crew and I were called into work to undergo an ‘operational learning review.’ The sole goal of which was to learn from a safety perspective, to understand what had happened and why. All in keeping with what is known as a “Just Culture.”

For those who’ve not heard of the term, “in a Just Culture both employees and company accept accountability for their actions and learning from events, and the intention is that no one will face punitive action for any unpremeditated or inadvertent error or mistake.”

Anyway one of the more valuable lessons came from comparing what we thought had happened to what had actually happened as demonstrated by the flight data. How all of us had a somewhat, shall we say, favourable recollection of events. But also how all of us had quite different recollections from each other. This is what really hit home for me. Our extraordinary propensity to misinterpret past events. It made me realise that hindsight is most definitely not 20/20.

But there was something else I took from this experience. Something for which I’m extremely grateful. That was the manner in which our company took responsibility for our mistakes. The way our Chief Pilot took responsibility by trying to understand exactly what had happened and why. The way our flight operations department took responsibility by trying to understand what holes might exist in our procedures. The way our training department took responsibility by trying to understand whether the way we’ve been trained needed changing. But also the way our Captain emailed the fleet office immediately after the flight and fessed up. It started with him assuming a position of complete responsibility. All of which encouraged me to do same.

When I look back I realise how easy it would have been for all of us to play the blame game. How easily I could have pointed at the finger at the Captain. Or how easily the company could have made scapegoats out of us. Instead learning in the interest of safety came first. Blame didn’t even enter into the equation. This is exactly what a Just Culture was designed to engineer – a sense of collective responsibility. I believe it works. I believe this is why Aviation has such an outstanding safety record.

I also believe it’s exactly this kind of culture we’d do well to implement more of in the real world. As the year draws to a close I’m hoping we might look back on 2020 as the year where we finally realised the need to come together. As the year we understood that when we take a position of collective responsibility, when all of us put our hands up and look at the ways in which we have failed – even if we weren’t the ones flying the aircraft – that we all stand to benefit. That it is only when we do, that we can say with any kind of certainty that hindsight is, in fact, 2020.

Thank you so much for reading everyone. I’m curious what you think. Is our certainty in retrospect granted or is it, perhaps, rather foolish? What about engineering a culture of collective responsibility? How might we do that? As always I welcome ALL thoughts and opinions. Wishing you all well, AP2 x


If you’d like to read some more of AP2’s nonsensical world views and exceptionally poor self-help advice be sure to check out his blog at:

33 thoughts on “Captain Hindsight

  1. Well said, AP2! The landing description made me feel a bit woozy, but glad you guys made it down safely. The Just Culture thing is a decent approach ( Hah!) as well, though I wonder if we are missing the concept of basic Honor? Similar, but not quite the same. Either way, the blame game serves no one, and it irritates me enough to want to blame someone! 🙂 Hmmm, this could be turned into a Pokemon type game; gotta blame ’em all!

    1. Thank you kjensen!

      Sounds worse than it was. It was safe. We were all happy on the flight deck. It’s just that we were a little fast and for that reason, technically, should have gone around. The just culture works well in aviation. I guess it’s more of a safety culture. But safety and responsibility are synonymous.

      Honour – that’s an excellent point. Talking of Pokemon – The culture of honour in Japan always struck me. Certainly serves them well, though it could be argued they don’t cut themselves enough slack. They don’t tend to blame each other but come down very hard on themselves.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙏

  2. AP, Great post! I had not heard of “just culture” before. It certainly is an appealing concept, the diametric opposite of what we have been experiencing in the US. Countless heads have rolled in the last four years. Many people are sick of the “blame game” and the “loyalty tests.” Thank you for sharing your story. Have a great day! <3

    1. Thank you Cheryl. How we would go about implementing such a culture in politics I’ve no idea. It requires leaders to take responsibility of course! Saying “I was wrong” or “we made a mistake” isn’t something I can recall hearing from a politician in a long long time… Wishing you well Cheryl 🙏

  3. People stepping up and owning their actions is quite beautiful. It doesn’t happen all that often. Partly because we don’t all inhabit the Just Culture. A great system, by the way.

    I was thinking, as I was reading, about how, when we make a silly mistake, we often laugh and say something along the lines of “slow learner”. It’s the truth. We are slow to change. We’re resistant, even when it’s logically for the better.


    1. It’s not a perfect system/culture but it works very well. What it does encourage is individuals to stand up and take responsibility for their mistakes.

      We are certainly slow learners. We dislike change which is part of the problem. The old adage that old habits die hard is one I can vouch for. It seems even if we know with hindsight we shouldn’t do something many of us can’t help ourselves.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙏

  4. A great and inspiring message.
    I actually found myself often in the position of Hindsight or something like that.
    Sadly I was just there, not even telling what went wrong or should have been done.
    So I was actually worse because otherwise some people could have at least seen what might have went wrong or that actually something went wrong. Well, your words are very clear I would say.
    And I know what I did or didn’t do. Decisions I made or others made for me.
    Under this constant pressure, fear and pain. Would I be Hindsight, I would feel very guilty, like usually about my life. Well, at least, as you wrote, this year was really a game changer and I am optimistic about what you said. Although I of course can’t proof or guarantee anything, this is not in my hands. I am just a small fish who didn’t do his job because he didn’t even know that the job was actually the job. Better late (or again finding it) than never. Good that I am not responsible for aircrafts, otherwise they might fall from the sky. Well, some of them (drones) would actually be very welcomed to land or fall down in the ocean or desert. But I wouldn’t be able to sleep would I have had the responsibility for actual air planes with people on board and such things. I would always think, that I probably missed something, made a mistake and then probably burn out, like I actually did, although because of various other reasons (multiple times). If I wouldn’t have acted on something others told me to do and actually would have at least tried what I actually wanted, like I planned to do, I would have probably not break this much and be the terrible mess I am now. But laws and people got the best of me and I had noone who really supported me. And I thought I wouldn’t make it anyway. But here I am, “totally messed up”, but still “running”. Well, as long as you like the way of my messed up mind and life, I guess it is okay. Thanks for reading in any way and keep it up! 🙂 <3
    Don't want to lose anyone. Not now, not when (although I didn't do much) some light is in reach (as some say). 😀 💜

    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      Yes I believe we all worry. We all feel like we might have missed something or could have done things better. Honestly I’m not sure if I would feel any different whatever profession I had chosen.

      I am sorry to hear about your past predicaments. We all need support. I believe when we take collective responsibility for what are ALL of our problems then we end up getting the support we need from one another when we make mistakes.

      We are all messed up in our own special way. The important thing is to keep going! Glad to hear that you still are.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Wishing you the very best, AP2 🙏

  5. Thanks for promoting me to think. Hadn’t considered before that hindsight is not always 20/20 (particularly for close relative who never learns from their mistakes…)

    1. Ha yes. It seems even with perfect hindsight we still fall for old habits. Some of us simply flat out refuse to acknowledge our past mistakes of course. I often wonder if that’s to do with how some us have been raised. You got me thinking now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙏

  6. What a great lesson! Kudos to your company.

    ‘Our extraordinary propensity to misinterpret past events. It made me realise that hindsight is most definitely not 20/20.’
    This also reminds me why eyewitness testimony isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Multiple people can have multiple versions of what transpired and still swear that their version is the truth.

    Thanks again. Great post.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Yes. I think the more people who can attest, the more accurate a picture we may get. But at an individual level hindsight is rarely so clear as people think.

  7. So true! I think if we were forced to watch all of our actions from a bird’s-eye-view, we’d be quite surprised at the flaws in our memory. Great post, AP2. 🕊

  8. This is a great article, Cap😃

    You make such a valid point. Collective responsibility trounces blame game, any day. In government, school and life in general.

  9. Hindsight is a wonderful thing isn’t it!

    I used to collate and analyse errors and complaints within a banking environment. One of the team managers introduced the concept of “you broke it, you fix it”. Without laying blame or marking people down, he encouraged staff to own and resolve their own errors, with his full backing and support. The number of operational errors on his team went down drastically when his staff identified that it takes far less time, money and effort to avoid mistakes in the first place than to resolve them. Additionally, errors were identified and resolved quickly because people were not afraid to report them promptly.

    Collective responsibility works so much better than the blame game.

    1. Awesome story – makes good sense. I believe people tend to do the right thing in the right environment – when given mutual respect and support. Thank you for sharing 🙏

    1. Thank you Amorina. I believe that taking responsibility is the same as taking a position of learning. It’s about having a growth mindset. Blaming others suits no one. Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙏

  10. Nice post!

    Our memories sadly don’t operate as tape recorders. They’re quite liable to bias and in fact, each time you remember something you’re changing that very memory. That’s because we add or remove things as we go. God knows what the original memory was!

    I also loved when you said how other people taking responsibility made you do the same. I feel it’s similar to when you open up and are authentic, it gives the other permission.

    1. Thank you Elena!

      That’s so true – like when we’re in a terrible mood all of our memories are tainted. Or how a bad breakup leaves this idea in our head that the whole relationship was bad – it’s as if we can only remember the bad times. The opposite is true when we feel “life is perfect.”

      I believe our collective culture – our collective way of thinking – is a big part of our problem. People tend to follow the herd. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing provided the herd is ‘good.’ As you say, if people are authentic and trusting it allows you to open up as well. I believe surrounding ourselves with the right people/environment is important for this reason.

      Thank you for your insightful comments. Wishing you a merry Christmas Elena 🙏

  11. If the herd is “bad” then I guess the best thing we can do is lead by example.

    Thank you. Wishing you a wonderful festive season as well. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts in 2021 🎉🙏

    1. Indeed. Be the change you wish to see in the world. I truly believe this is how we change it. Thanks again Elena and to you! 🎉🙏

  12. Wow, AP2, there’s so much here to think about. Your post reminded me of the way we often talk about “arguing”–we either “win” arguments or “lose” them. This turns the sharing of opinions into a zero-sum game, doesn’t it? Ego so often gets involved when we’re communicating with others. There must be cultures out there where people feel less threatened by the idea of losing or being defeated while sharing opinons. We strategically use language to impress others. We like to see ourselves as “experts.” We enjoy being “right” and can become enraged when people challenge our views. I also like that you’ve introduced me to the “just culture” concept. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of that before. I’ve got to do more reading about such approaches to work and the work environment. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Troy – yes I agree – the way we argue or discuss our point of view is often expressed as as absolute. Yet reality is never so simple. I think leaving room for the idea that our thoughts only paint a very small part of the picture helps.
      Just culture – yes I believe it works well in aviation. Thank you for your comments Troy. Also much appreciated. And Merry Christmas!

  13. This post reminds me of the TED talk by Jocko Willink on Extreme Ownership. Very few people benefit from playing the blame game. Far more people benefit from learning why something went wrong, and how to put plans in place to fix ensure it doesn’t happen again.

    On a different note, the first part of the post reminds me of conversations I have via electronic message with one of my best friends. She replies to messages after a few days, and as such I think she does a really good job of understanding the message and replying to it fully. I on the other hand reply quickly which means I often miss something, or forget to answer a particular question. In hindsight I nearly always think of something more humorous I could have said, an “afterism” as I like to call it, or something that would have been a more complete response. I don’t think either way of replying to messages is necessarily wrong, but hindsight here definitely has me thinking about whether I’m reading to take in what she is saying, or simply rushing through the reading so I can respond.

    Another thought that just came to me is about ultimate frisbee. It’s a self refereed sport, so everyone is responsible for making calls when they think rules have been breached, and acknowledging when they breach a rule themselves. Discussions are a bit part of ultimate when a referee (one of the players) makes a call. It is not a definitive decision like a third party referee makes in other sports, but an invitation to figure out whether an infringement occurred through a quick discussion. One thing players have to remember is they are trying to figure it’s about what actually happened, not what they *wanted* to have happened.

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