MAKER DAD: How Failure Can Make You Epic

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I’m encouraging the students I work with to embrace epic failure. Not because of the old cliché about “building character,” but because once you learn that failure is a friend, you become much more willing to push boundaries – which is what “making” is about.

It is fantastic when a project works out well or even better than planned, but we all have failures. The challenge I have encountered is that a lot of kids simply cannot handle failure. Rather than look at what happened and why, they seem to be crushed emotionally and disengage. The failure becomes more important than everything you did correctly along the way.

Kids also receive very conflicted messages about failure these days. Given the standards based testing environment that public schools live under, the students see a huge emphasis on getting the right answer the first time and NOT failing. From a developmental standpoint, this inability to deal with failure can lead more aversion to risk and less confidence to seize opportunities that arise.

The practical (if not ironic) side of this is that most design and engineering efforts go through a lot of testing, failure, and revision on the way to a working product. Any serious maker can tell you that every action is not rewarded and that failure is a crucial part of making new things.

So, we celebrate the epic failures, try to take the modest failures in stride and learn to be persistent (and sometimes too persistent).

What trying--and failing--looks like

Consider any given Saturday lab session. We always have at least one CAD design that looks great on the monitor, but fails in an epic manner when we take it to the printer. Or in the cases of the more complicated designs, they print fine, but when assembled, they don’t work.  So rather than be embarrassed or upset by the failures, we embrace them and in the following class we will talk about what happened and why.

Recently one of the more inventive students, Thomas, came up with a mechanism for guitarists and rapidly went through several iterations of the multi-part device as he got feedback and suggestions. By Friday Thomas was sending STL files to the Lab Manager for printing. The first model was “integrated” and printed as a single solid piece which prevented the moving parts from moving -- a clearly epic failure.

The lesson here was not to put all the parts together for printing.

Thomas quickly e-mailed the Lab Manager a second “dis-integrated” version with the parts laid out separately and the Lab Manager sprang into action to get the object printed. However, before the second version had finished, the Lab Manager (me) received a third version. The students were getting a little too enthusiastic about working through to a completed design.

Thomas was not put off one bit by the earlier failures and if anything, those failures gave him the incentive to revise, rethink and go after the design again. So much so that I was a bit overwhelmed attempting to chase rapid iterations of the project. I begrudgingly let Thomas know that I was not spending any more of my time on the project until his design sat for 24 hours without additional “enhancements.” But it was gratifying to see him embrace new learnings from his failures.

In our MakerSpace, embracing failure gives The Herd (our young makers) several skills useful in engineering and beyond:

  • The ability to accept failure and “get over it”

  • The basic fundamentals of failure analysis

  • Active troubleshooting

  • Really understanding a design beyond how it looks

  • Persistence to work through a problem and get to a solution

Thomas Edison said 100 years ago: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” While the students I am working with have had some immediate successes, many other projects have required a number of iterations, trial and error before there was a working model.

Kids who develop the confidence to explore and an understanding that failure is not the end of the world are likely to go further, gain more, fail frequently (and spectacularly), and perhaps live more epic lives.

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