Human Error
© 10 Oct 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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How should you react to unpleasantness?


When I started my post last week on error messages I expected to relate them to humans, but they sort of expanded to fill the available space. Let’s try again, shall we?

Several times in my life a stray comment by someone has had a profound impact on my thinking. One such was a comment made by someone (I think it was John C. Knight) during the orientation activities associated with my beginning graduate research at the University of Virginia.

If you knew it would work, it wouldn’t be research.

I’ve written earlier about the good of failure. But failure is clearly not all sunshine and roses. How do you react when things go amiss? I don’t just mean the silver-lining failures, either; what is your reaction to car wrecks, illness, bank runs, and other circumstantial ills?

Last night I was running a game of Dungeons and Dragons™ D&D is a commercial role-playing game. At one point as I had described a river they needed to cross and how difficult that would be with their wagon of provisions. As I described how obstacles prevented their first three ideas on of the players said “‍You’re just trying to make this difficult, aren’t you?‍” This question unbalanced me. Denotatively the answer was a clear and simple “‍Yes.‍” But connotatively the answer was the opposite. What I actually said was “‍Surprisingly, the game isn’t much fun if things aren’t difficult.‍”

The idea that problems are important is easy to see in a game. It feels less pleasant in real life.

I am reminded of Robert Frost’s statement to the Milton Academy: “‍Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.‍” He was a poet by profession, and I don’t think he meant this as “‍keep poetry hard so I don’t have competition.‍” The very structure that makes writing verse harder than free verse can catalyze thought and expression in a very beneficial way. There is power in opposition.

But what do these have to do with droughts and measles? Surely there are quite happy people who don’t have the problems I have. As Sheldon Harnick had Tevye say, “‍would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?‍”

I dare not speculate here on God’s eternal plans for you; instead I return to the quote I opened with instead. There’s nothing wrong with research panning out the first time. But if you are a researcher, you are foolish to expect it to pan out. Failure it part of the game. And if you are mortal, it is foolish to expect a bump-free life. Loss and catastrophe are part of the game.

What is your error message? Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth? Burying sorrows in your favorite form of escapism? Rage against whomever you think failed to prevent the error?

I think the best answer is obvious from the outside. When things go wrong, use the knowledge of what failed to recalibrate your behavior to most effectively reach your goals in the new circumstances.

I’m not, generally, a subscriber to the “‍make lemonade‍” quip because it encourages what seems to me to be a faulty hope that every setback is itself an opportunity. When life burns your house down with your family inside it you don’t really gain much of anything. I don’t mean that such an experience cannot be beneficial, but if you go searching for the lemons to squeeze you’ll miss the real opportunity. The same opportunity that everyone has all the time. The chance to become a better person by working through the pain.

The Richard and Robert Sherman observed

Disaster didn’t styme Louis Pasteur
Edison took years to see the light
Alexander Graham knew failure well.
He took a lot of knocks to ring that bell.
Onward and upward you must press!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.

There is truth in this idea. If we knew it would work it wouldn’t be research; if we knew it would be easy it wouldn’t be life. Not that we need our life to go up in flames so that we can get enough ashes to grow roses in, but we should be prepared to grow success no matter what soil life hands us.

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