Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The role of failiure in success

Several years ago Henry Petroski wrote a book entitled, "To Engineer is Human". The book has this interesting subtitle, "The Role of Failure in Successful Design". This thought-provoking book gives new insight into the world of engineering, and shows how past engineering flaws and fiascos have paved the way to successful creation and design. Petroski uses engineering failure to illustrate how how we can use downfalls in any area of life as lessons for a safer and more successful future.

Innovation is an invitation for something to go wrong. The person who sets out to build a better mouse trap, find a cure for cancer, build a better bridge, or start a new business will experience failures. The only persons exempt from failure are those who attempt nothing new. Failure is painful. Mistakes are costly, but they can become guidelines to success. Legend has it that after 8000 unsuccessful attempts to build a nickel-iron storage battery, Thomas Edison said, "Well, at least we know 8000 things that do not work."

Most of us have a mental model for life which is not designed to accommodate failure. Thus our failure becomes so demoralizing that we are not able to go on. Success is not always what we think it to be either. Socrates was not able to persuade the Athenian elders, and when he swallowed the hemlock, it appeared that all was lost. But out of his failure came a kind of success that immortalized Socrates and his philosophy. When Jesus stumbled along the Via Dolorosa, carrying on his back the instrument upon which he would die, his friends and followers wept in despair. On that fateful Friday afternoon, as they lowered his lifeless body from the cross, even his disciples thought all was lost. They did not reckon with the strange alchemy of the Almighty, who turned this tragedy into triumph.

All around us, every day, there are people whose inventions did not fly, whose bubbles burst, and whose dreams became nightmares. This multitude, among whom we take our place from time to time, needs a touch of love and encouragement as they try again to transform some failure.

I found this verse attributed to Samuel E. Kiser. "I have tried but reached only disaster; I have battled but broken my lance; I am bruised by a pitiless monster that the weak and timid call chance. I am old, I am beat, I am cheated of all that youth urged me to win; but name me not with the defeated, for tomorrow, I begin again."

There are many whose dreams have not been realized, and probably never will be. A business failed, a marriage fell apart, a child brought home a wagon load of trouble, somebody died, or somebody just up and left. There are a thousand things that can unhinge life. Most of them can happen to most any of us. It is what we do with what happens that makes the difference in life.

I was glad the poet was willing to wait until tomorrow to begin again. In the wake of failure we all need some "crying time". Anyone who hopes to have the strength to "...watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop to build ‘em up with worn-out tools;" (Kipling) must allow some time for healing. It is necessary to grieve what is lost. We may even need the temporary use of that abundant, cheap and warm emotion called self-pity to get us past what has happened. Do not give up on people who relive their hurts, voice bitterness, and take a few shots of self-pity. These are feelings you get past by expressing them, on the way to a more noble resolve. If such uncomfortable expressions of humanity are blocked by well-meaning friends, they will have to come back and be dealt with at a later and far more inappropriate time.

There is a lesson to be learned from our failures, though you may have to get someone to help you find the lesson. Just don't go hide. Keep moving. Do something. There is a good analogy in the animal world, in which survival depends on initiative. When the sun comes up in Africa, the gazelle must outrun the fastest lion in order to survive. The lion must out run the slowest gazelle or starve. The lesson in the animal world is that when the sun comes up, and there is no place to hide, whether a lion or a gazelle, you had better be running. In the animal world failure is fatal. We differ from the animal in that our failure is not fatal unless we believe it to be. For us failure can be a lesson in which we learn to survive and succeed. When the sun comes up tomorrow, get up running. When you fall down, get up and go again. No failure is final or fatal unless you believe it to be. Failure is just another lesson on the way to a more creative and successful life.

You can know when a person has made it to safe ground when you hear them say, "Name me not with the defeated, for tomorrow I begin again".