Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Engineering, Bob Dylan, and Samuel Beckett

Was Bob Dylan correct - - "There's no success quite like failure"? The saying comes from the lyrics to Love Minus Zero/No Limit (1965). The actual lines are:

In the dime stores and bus stations,
People talk of situations,
Read books, repeat quotations,
Draw conclusions on the wall.
Some speak of the future,
My love she speaks softly,
She knows there's no success like failure,
And that failure's no success at all.

When you examine the last two lines, Dylan is presenting the paradox (and people appear to miss the point he was trying to make). Failure seems appealing, yet Dylan is being honest and admitting that failure is no picnic either.

Screwups, disasters, misfires, flops - - is losing really a winning strategy? It depends on the scale and scope of the failure or mistake along with the context. Scientific research, such as cutting edge work in fighting cancer, is a long sequence of failed experimentation. It is trial and error and more trial and more error. We want our bright scientific minds noticing the failures that point toward new possibilities. Failure in this context is about hope and promise for the future.

But reality is different from the experimental in the world of professional failures. Do you really want "screwups, disasters, misfires, flops" from your cardiologist during your open heart surgery? What about a mistake? Consider the innocent man on death row - - probably not a lot of merit in the notion that "epic failure can lead to spectacular success." Want to drive across a bridge with a sign hanging over it - - "Screwing Up is Good for You!!"? The words failure and mistake have much deeper and negative meanings in the world of professionals.

It is always important to learn from past mistakes - the goal of becoming a better engineer, manager, husband/wife, or mother/father has a path that starts in the past and leads toward the future. We are interested in those private histories and lessons regarding mistakes and failures not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are. The learning process resides in slowing down enough to pay attention to what you might call the grammar of experience. Where reflection on experience and learning is about confronting the disconnect and demands associated with capabilities and performance. The worst thing that can come out of a reflective examination of a mistake is a failure to appreciate its symptoms and no agreement regarding the cure.

One cannot do good in our world today unless you are prepared to exert your share of power, take your share of responsibility, make your share of mistakes, and assume your share of risks. Where the word mistake is a complex mixture of vagueness and context in a culture that defines an "interesting life" as one filled with controversial success, punctuated by occasional and spectacular failures. People make their own history regarding their own mistakes and failures, but they do not make it as they please: they do not make it under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances that already exist, given and transmitted from the past. What gets transmitted is a ledger of successes and failures, linked to the humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves in the context of these events. Maybe Beckett was correct - - from Worstward Ho (1983):

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

1 comment:

  1. I had always taken Dylan's lyric "there's no success like failure" to be expressing the fact that the sting of failure is so much deeper and longer lasting than the elation of success. But that's Dylan: interpretation is left to the listener.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.