Failure Is Fine, Learning Is Mandatory


“Failure is a harsh teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson afterward.” — Vernon Law

I’m seeing a thread going around on Twitter today that is encouraging people to share their stories of failure in their career. Maybe it was a time they created a security hole in a huge application. Perhaps it was creating a routing loop in a global corporation. Or maybe it was something as simple as getting confused about two mailboxes and deleting the wrong one and realizing your mail platform doesn’t have undelete functionality.

We fail all the time. We try our hardest and whatever happens isn’t what we want. Some of those that fail just give up and assume that juggling isn’t for them or that they can never do a handstand. Others keep persevering through the pain and challenge and eventually succeed because they learn what they need to know in order to complete their tasks. Failure is common.

What is different is how we process the learning. Some people repeat the same mistakes over and over again because they never learn from them. In a professional setting, toggling the wrong switch when you create someone’s new account has a very low learning potential because it doesn’t affect you down the road. If you accidentally check a box that requires them to change their password every week you’re not going to care because it’s not on your account. However, if the person you do that to has some kind of power to make you switch it back or if the option puts your job in jeopardy you’re going to learn very quickly to change your behavior.

Object Failure

Here’s a quick one that illustrates how the motivation to learn from failure sometimes needs to be more than just “oops, I screwed up”. I’ll make it a bullet point list to save time:

  • Installed new phone system for school district
  • Used MGCP as the control protocol
  • Need to solve a PRI caller ID issue at the middle school
  • Gateway is at the high school
  • Need to see all the call in the system
  • Type debug mgcp packet detail in a telnet session
  • A. Telnet. Session.
  • Router locks up tight and crashes
  • Hear receptionist from the other room say, “Did you just hang up on me?”
  • Panic
  • Panic some more
  • Jump in my car and break a couple of laws getting across town to restart router that I’m locked out of
  • Panic a lot in the five minutes it takes to reboot and reassociate with CallManager
  • Swear I will never do that again

Yes, I did the noob CCIE thing of debugging packets on a processing device in production because I underestimated the power of phone calls as well as my own stupidity. I got better!

But I promise that if I’d have done this and it would have shut down one phone call or caused an issue for one small remote site I wouldn’t have leaned a lesson. I might even still be doing that today to look at issues. The key here is that I shut down call processing for the entire school district for 20 minutes at the end of the school day. You have no idea how many elementary school parents call the front office at the end of the day. I know now.

Lessons have more impact with stress. It’s something we see in a lot of situations where we train people about how to behavior in high pressure situations. I once witnessed a car accident right in front of me on a busy highway and it took my brain almost ten seconds to process that I needed to call emergency services (911 in the US) even though I had spent the last four years programming that dial peer into phone systems and dialing it for Calling Line ID verification. I’d practiced calling 911 for years and when I had to do it for real I almost forgot what to do. We have to know how people are going to react under stress. Or at least anticipate how people are going to behave. Which is why I always configured 9.911 as a dial peer.

Lessons Learned

The other important thing about failure is that you have to take stock of what you learn in the post-mortem. Even if it’s just an exercise you do for yourself. As soon as you realize you made a mistake you need to figure out how to learn from it and prevent that problem again. And don’t just say to yourself, “I’m never doing that again!” You need to think about what caused the issue and how you can ingrain the learning process into your brain.

Maybe it’s something simple like creating a command alias to prevent you from making the wrong typo again and deleting a file system. Maybe it’s forcing yourself to read popup dialog boxes as you click through the system to make sure you’re deleting the right file or formatting the right disk. Someone I used to work with would write down the name of the thing he was deleting and hold it up to the screen before he committed the command to be sure they matched. I never asked what brought that about but I’m sure it was a ton of stress.


Tom’s Take

I screw up. More often than even I realize. I try to learn as much as I can when I’m sifting through the ashes. Maybe it’s figuring out how I went wrong. Perhaps it’s learning why the thing I wanted to do didn’t work the way I wanted it to. It could even be as simple as writing down the steps I took to know where I went wrong and sharing that info with a bunch of strangers on the Internet to keep me from making the same mistake again. As long as you learn something you haven’t failed completely. And if you manage to avoid making the exact same mistake again then you haven’t failed at all.

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