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Ciciora’s Corner: Failure

Tue, 02/11/2014 - 7:17pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

“Failure” is an “F word”. It’s not something anyone wants to hear mentioned, discussed, or, especially, accused. It may be even more obscene than the other commonly used “F word”, although failures frequently cause “F-bombs”.

Failure stings engineers and technologists a lot less than other folks. That’s because we experience it as part of our work and we expect it in at least small measures. Non-technical folks are devastated by failure; they don’t know how to handle it. Technical folks aren’t happy about failure, but see it as a learning opportunity, a step along the way to eventual success. You might hear a technologist say “if it was that easy, it would have been done already” or “if it was simple, any crazy fool could do it." Of course, both of these statements are true and are a source of job security.

Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft chief technology officer, said recently in a Time Magazine interview with Charlie Rose: “Most overnight successes come after repeated attempts and failures. You’ve got to keep at it." The irony is intentional. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” puts forth the notion that expertise comes after ten thousand hours of work, including multiple failed attempts. 

A technologist who rarely experiences failure is one that doesn’t innovate often enough and may not be worthy of being considered a technologist. An aggressive innovator experiences more failure than success. But the occasional successes make it all worth the struggle.

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, has a new book titled: “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Kind of the Story of My Life." It’s a book that deposits little bits of wisdom while being entertaining. There are even a few (a disappointingly few) Dilbert cartoons. A good Dilbert cartoon captures a thin slice of the work world and depicts it in an absurd way and boils it down to its essence. The really good Dilberts are taped to office doors or stuck on the break room bulletin board. The book’s chapters are very short, some even just one page. That makes it a great airplane book. And if one chapter doesn’t interest you, the next one likely will. 

Scott warns the reader early on that things that worked for someone else may not work for you because the times and the situation likely have changed. This is especially true when advanced technology is involved. So you can follow the general principles of a successful person, but don’t get hung up on the details.  The things that made those details so important are likely no longer the same. 

The book discusses luck.  Luck is a term used to paper over a lack of understanding of what caused the success or failure of an adventure. Often, “luck” is just a match of talents, skills, and knowledge to a situation ripe for utilizing those elements. The secret to becoming “lucky” is to understand and develop your talents, skills, and knowledge and find situations that will reward the application of those elements. You might have to stumble along through several situations until you find one that appreciates what you have. That means being able to suffer a few failures before you get “lucky." You might also have most of the elements needed for being “lucky” but be a little short on one or two. The trick is to be able to identify the shortage and to work on fixing it.

A nice feature of the Scott Adams book is that it can be read in random order. It is not a smooth flowing story developed from beginning to an end with a clearly defined middle. It’s just chunks of stuff that can be digested in bite-sized pieces.

A favorite chapter, “Some of My Many Failures in Summary Form” is one of the longer chapters in the book. I won’t spoil your reading experience by spilling the beans.  

An unusual failure experience is when failure is expected and fails to occur because of something you did.  When it’s your job to prevent a train wreck, and you succeed, there are no sparks! No one will notice! That’s when it is important to have significant self-esteem and humility. You will need the self-esteem because you are not likely to get much credit from others (including your boss). You need humility because demanding that credit will only bring you trouble! This becomes one of your little secrets in life. 

I would suggest buying the book and reading it on the airplane or using it where there are small chunks of time that ordinarily would be wasted. For example, I find books like this to be magic at the barber shop.

If I bring a book along that I am eager to read, there will be little to no wait. If I come with nothing to read, there will be a line out the door. I mentioned this to the barber. He asked me not to bring books to his shop. I, of course, did not honor his request. 

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