Posts Tagged 'failure'

Success and Failure

I’m trying to debug an (allegedly) obscure and difficult .NET interop issue with MFC-based COM. So far, I’ve learned very little and have no idea what I’m doing. In my typical “think outside the box” style of avoidance / coping mechanism, I wrote this.

 I recently visited, a site dedicated to stories and essays about software development escapades gone horribly wrong. I can’t find the particular text right now, but I do remember reading somewhere “Failure is the best teacher. One doesn’t get better by winning, does he?” While many tough-love advocates enjoy this cliché, I disagree. To put it another way, I think that Edison’s optimism on all his failed light-bulb attempts was a bit shallow. I was recently watching “House,” and Dr. House, as usual, was browbeating his team for performing tests that eliminated potential diagnoses. He belittled their efforts by making the comparison, “I asked you to find out what two plus two is—you’ve been up all night and all you can tell me is that it isn’t twenty-three?” While House is certainly an ass, he’s right. While I am not a big fan of the lukewarm “everything in moderation” crowd, I feel that a combination of success and failure is the best teacher.

 Okay—it’s time for another analogy. Does anyone remember the episode of “The Simpsons” that featured a battleship game? Millhouse has managed to fire a shot at every single vacant square on his opponent’s field. All that remains are the un-touched ship areas, surrounded by an envelope of misses. Has Millhouse learned anything? Even “perhaps” is a bit of a stretch, but even given that, he learned very, very slowly, and fostering slow learning isn’t typically the mark of a good teacher.

 I’m not sure what the ideal ratio of success to failure is when learning something new. (I’ll be a jerk and say 50% success to start, and hopefully, the success/failure feedback loop will drive that percentage up as learning progresses.) Keep in mind, though, that in life, the number of things you could possibly do wrong in a given scenario typically dwarfs what you could do right, and not all failures are useful learning experiences any more so than claiming 2+2 is “twenty-three” or “George Washington.” A useful failure would be to get a hit in a battleship turn, guess one space to the left next time, notice it is a miss, and then use process of elimination to make the next guess statistically more likely to be successful. However, one can never have that experience without some initial “seed” success. success x failure = learning and insight. If you take this literally, then 50% actually is the idea ratio.