The Cost of Failure
Throughout our lives, we are often taught that failure is a means to future success. We can learn from mistakes in order to do better next time. However, in adulthood, we quickly discover that failure is a bit more complicated than that. For many careers, including engineering, failure must be used appropriately to facilitate discovery and invention without causing harm. I have previously discussed failure in two opposing ways: notable engineering disasters and iterative design. Engineering disasters are points in a project where a device failing has the potential to hurt or even kill people.. Major examples include architectural failures or malfunctioning cars. Everything from a leaky pipe to a phone that overheats and catches fire is a failure that has the capacity to cause damage. We can certainly learn from these mistakes, but at what cost? Iterative design has the opposite effect. Throughout the design process, new models are made that improve on the mistakes of the last model. Redesign does not have to be caused by significant errors. Minor bugs or flaws discovered at this stage can become opportunities to explore the possibilities of a device in a controlled setting and find the optimal version.
This is the meaning behind ‘appropriate failure’. Failing during the inventing process can often benefit the overall design if it is explored with caution. However, a failure during implementation has wider reaching effects and a much greater potential for danger. This distinction is really the difference between finesse and carelessness. In our work, we are obligated to do the best job that we can, especially when it can have important consequences. What is considered important is difficult to define. However, it is our responsibility to use failure wisely as it will always be inevitable. As careful as we can be, mistakes will happen, and it is through systems of checks and balances that we can keep those mistakes from becoming real problems with major effects.
People love to talk about inventions that were created by accident, and they should. It speaks to the spirit of invention and ingenuity in us all. We appreciate a world where pie tins turn into frisbees and annoying burs inspire Velcro. These are fine examples of how creative thinking can solve problems we haven’t considered while trying to work out solutions to different ones. However, not all mistakes are without cost. X-rays were invented by accident during experiments with cathode ray tubes. And while this was an amazing discovery for everyone, history shows a multitude of scientists who lost their lives studying radiation without knowing the harmful effects it has, such as Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin. Both women made significant contributions to science and died of illnesses that many believe could have been caused by extensive radiation exposure. This is even worse for Franklin who died before the significance of her work could be recognized, leaving others to accept the Nobel Prize instead.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to discover great things; only that we should be careful in the way we go about it. In the case of radiation, it took time to discover the danger. This time gap took a toll on more than just the scientists who discovered its applications. Starting in the 1920s, young women, known now as the radium girls, painted luminous watch dials with radium paint. They were often instructed to stick the brushes in their mouths to get a better point for the delicate painting. This led to many of them having terrible health issues related to radium paint poisoning. It took years to prove and popularize the idea that radiation was incredibly dangerous to handle. This sounds almost ridiculous to a modern audience. However, the fact remains that innocent people paid the price for discovery. Whether or not someone knew that workers should not have been ingesting the paint, that fact was not shared with them. It is irresponsible to not evaluate our inventions and discoveries for these types of errors. It is our goal to not expose people to that type of danger in our work. We must attempt to minimize these unintended mistakes and approach the unknown with caution. Ultimately, failure is a teaching tool, but we have to use it carefully to ensure we are all alive to appreciate the lesson.