Don’t be afraid to fail

Not long ago I met a female high school student who was very interested in pursuing a career in engineering (I swear her eyes sparkled with excitement when she talked about it), but she was afraid of what could happen if she made a mistake as an engineer.

Ah, if we could just all be perfect… wouldn’t that be nice?  But we’re not.  We’re human.  And we make mistakes sometimes.  That is why engineering organizations build checks and balances into their processes.  Work that is safety-related is checked by other engineers.  Detailed failure analyses are performed.  Critical systems are designed  with redundancy to avoid single point failures.

This student’s concern strikes an ever deeper cord with me, however.  I know what she’s thinking and where she’s headed.  When I first started working as an engineer, I worried about every little mistake.  I was convinced that if I were a competent engineer, then everything I designed and built should work correctly the first time.

I am here to tell you that it doesn’t work that way.  It has taken me years to understand that being an engineer is all about learning and building upon our experiences.  Sometimes we make mistakes.  And sometimes our designs don’t work because of something completely unexpected.  So what happens when something doesn’t work?  We have to investigate, to troubleshoot, to find the root cause.  And what is the end result of this?  We learn something new.  We create an even better design next time.  Some of my best days in the lab started when something didn’t work as planned.  There have been times where I’ve had to dig into the project to a level that forces me to gain a true understanding of how things work.  If I didn’t figure it out myself, my coworkers were always willing to jump in to take a look.  There is nothing like an elusive problem to draw a crowd of engineers, all with their own suggestions for how to uncover the answer!

I have learned far more from my mistakes than I ever learned from my successes.

Don’t be afraid to fail.  Otherwise you will never take the risks required to create something truly extraordinary.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”   – Thomas Edison


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