Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Options, Endings, & Failure

PostedWednesday, May 1, 2019 at 10:43 PM

Options, Endings, & Failure

“Failure is not an option,” is a great line from a great scene in the movie Apollo 13. In five words, it captures a mindset of persistence and conscientiousness that is admirable, if not heroic. But when you watch the whole movie, and really think about it, it’s the story of one failure after another.

Failure is one of those words that carries a lot of baggage. Its definition seems simple enough:

FAILURE (noun):

1. lack of success; an unsuccessful person, enterprise, or thing

2. the omission of expected or required action; lack of a desirable quality

3. the action or state of not functioning

In reality, failure is a two-sided enigma that is sometimes hard to reconcile.

On the one hand, failure is a natural — even essential — part of learning something new. As engineering educators, we know that failure is expected as part of the design process. It’s how good ideas turn into great products or how novelties turn into transformative technologies.

On the other hand, failure can have very real, very negative, consequences. When some technologies fail, people can be injured or killed. When diplomacy fails, nations, economies, and the environment can be affected for years, causing to millions of people to suffer.

Failure is good, and failure is bad. It’s something to embrace on the way to better things, and it is something to be avoided by all possible measures. It is the turning point that spurs a person on to greatness, and it is the unfortunate culmination of a series of choices.

Not all failures are created equal.

In engineering, failures generated during the design process help avoid failure in the final results. It’s good to fail and fail often while working out a design. That leaves time to experiment, to learn, and to improve, so that the final product is the best it can be.

Accepting failure as part of a process, however, doesn’t lessen the blow when your best effort still fails to win over users or contest judges. Unless it’s put in perspective, a loss like that has a kind of finality that is a little like leaving astronauts stranded somewhere between the earth and moon.

That’s one reason why students new to engineering are sometimes “turned off” by competitive engineering activities. When you’re just learning to embrace failure, it helps to be given time and a real opportunity to think about, to learn, and to recover from a loss. How we as educators and leaders frame those failures can have a big influence on how students respond to them.

Moments of personal or professional failure standout on the mental timeline of my life — some with more clarity than some of my best days — but I was lucky to have people in my life who were adventurous and demonstrated how to recover and move on from set-backs. When I failed, I felt shame, followed by anger, followed by a very strong desire to do better.

That’s the thing about failure. If it isn’t the end, it’s the start of something else, hopefully something better.

Thinking back to Apollo 13. It was the story of recovering from one failure after another. It was a story of optimism, collaboration, and creativity — all engineering habits of mind. Failure was an option, but it wasn’t the only one. Even more important, everyone working to bring those astronauts home agreed: This doesn’t end in failure.

Failure is not the end. It is the start of a beautiful journey. Jade Youssef

A few more thoughts on failure:

In Engineering, Failure is Human—and Necessary! A previous LinkEngineering Blog post about the language of failure in the classroom.

Using Failure to Introduce The Engineering Design Process A lesson that uses failure as an entry point to learning the engineering design process.

The Failure Show A program from New Hampshire Public Radio that explored “our cultural obsession with failure and how we humans process failure” through several different audio interviews.