TCS Daily

Nobody's Perfect

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Nobody's perfect, and everybody makes mistakes.  What's more, we often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

These statements are clichs, but they're true.  Heck, they're clichs because they're true.

But it's still easy to forget them.  How often do we hear news reports that an experiment "failed" when what it really means is that it produced an unexpected result?

Sometimes, of course, the failure is real.  For example, the Planetary Society's Cosmos 1 solar-sail experiment didn't make orbit.  That's a failure.

Still, Planetary Society director Lou Friedman isn't calling it a failure:

Surprisingly, I am not bummed out. I expected to be. Secretly, not sharing with anyone, I thought that if this mission failed I would come back devastated and in a mood to give it up. So, at about 20:25 GMT on 21 June when it became evident that something had gone gravely wrong with the mission, I waited for the depression to set in. Instead, I got caught up in the immediacy of the situation, and now, four days afterward, I am more focused on what we did, what we still are doing, and what we might do in the future than I am with regret about what might have been.

Some might accuse Friedman of putting a Pollyannaish spin on things, but I'd say he's learned the most important lesson of all:  It's hard to accomplish much if you're afraid to fail.

The history of success in all sorts of endeavors -- including the early days of space travel, when we were making rapid progress -- is a history of repeated failures.  I don't think it's a coincidence that when the failure rate declined, so did our rate of progress.  You learn from failure, and you learn from trying lots of different things.  Unfortunately, fear of failure -- like fear in general -- is contagious.  But fortunately, so is bravery.  When people act unafraid of failure, other people may pick up on the message.

The Planetary Society's mission was, really, a failure:  It was supposed to test solar sails, and it never got the chance.  But, simply by happening, and by having the Planetary Society emerge with its head bloody, but unbowed, it accomplished something useful by opening up (metaphorical) space for others to try risky but low-cost approaches without worrying too much about the fallout.  And that's good.

Because, as I've noted before, when you're not afraid of failure you can try lots of different things and figure out what works best.  If you're afraid of failing, on the other hand, you build huge, process-laden, documentation-heavy, behemoths that -- in a way -- are already failures before they ever start because they're too hard to change and improve, and because they don't generate enough useful knowledge to allow further progress.  (See, e.g., the Space Shuttle program).

The Planetary Society's launch, despite Lou Friedman's views, failed.  But the approach it embodied is the only approach that's likely to achieve substantial success in the long run.  And that's a kind of success in itself.  Let's hope that we'll see more of this sort of thing in the future.


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