Failure is Inevitable

Probably the most encouraging guiding principle I got from reading Guru Madhavan’s Applied Minds: How Engineers Think was the revelation that failure is inevitable. Our job, then, is to explore the points of failure so that we can reduce them. Where we cannot avoid failures, we must develop contingencies plans for dealing with them or recovering from them.

I find it difficult to express just how freeing this idea is to me, someone who is often nearly paralyzed with perfectionism. Growing up in a highly competitive family and being the eldest, I liked the heady feeling of besting others. I also knew that in the chain-of-command, if something went wrong (if one of my younger siblings did something or if something happened to them), I’d be blamed.

Over the years this environment made me risk-averse, unwilling to try something unless already knew I could master it and quickly abandoning things that I could not. The idea that “failure is not an option” became deeply imprinted on my psyche.

Reminding myself that the engineering mindset is a disciplined approach to testing for failure…for pushing our limits to the point of failure and then figuring out what to do next is very calming to me. Failure is no longer something to be ashamed of; it’s something to seek out, to use as a tool for improvement.

What could go wrong? Everything. Good! Let’s start with that.

Video: Kadena AFB. 1966. My dad, a fighter pilot, loved to build radio-controlled model planes. The Roadrunner, his most beautiful model, handcrafted from a set of plans (that is, not a kit), turned out not to be fit for purpose.