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A round peg in a world of square holes...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Dare to fail

Nick wrote an interesting post where he provides an anecdotal example of the "Rush to Failure" concept:

the coolest part of the night was when chatting with the Sun representative he mentioned about how he was involved in a defense contract, way before he was at Sun. He said there was an instance where there was this radio that the marines were using, and the data coming in over the air was not getting parsed correctly by a program that was written by another defense company. He said that when the four star general originally asked him how long it would take, he responded with 6 months. The general stated that you have one month, and you should use the "Rush to Failure" method. It's a method in which you get there as quick as you can, and try to make the thing break as many times as you can. With one other programmer he set out to do it. In exactly one month, he got it right, and got on a plane to the pentagon to demo his success. He was awarded a 5 million dollar contract, and the rest is history.

The post so intrigued a colleague, Kunal Anand, that he wrote his own post, Failure -> Creativity -> Innovation, about it:

If there is one thing that I have realized while studying at colleges, running a startup, and working, is that it is okay to fail. Through a wide array of problem-solving, failure has forced me to throw away principal approaches and be fearless to try something radically different. Besides, what's the worst that can happen? Failure leads to creativity, which can lead to innovation.

To which I shall add my own 2 cents:

       Failure: a concept totally anathema to the national trait — and culture — of Singaporeans. For most of them, failure is something to be ashamed of, and more damningly, failure is viewed as an end condition, a terminus. They are unable to conceptualize a future, a trajectory, beyond failure. As such, they do all they can to maximize the odds of success; and above all, avoid failure.

       While avoiding failure and embracing success are hardly negative traits, the behavioral pattern necessarily begs the question of, What is success? Or, rather, What is the quality of success we are achieving?

       In an interesting discussion on another blog, the discretion in picking one's battles was described as not being my strong trait (foils to our characters often prove to be intellectually stimulating; failing at that, at least amusing). Again, we return to the question of, What is the quality of success? Is Student A a smarter or better student because he or she goes for the easiest classes to score the most number of As? Or, is Student B, who zooms in on the most difficult, most demanding classes and scrapes by with mostly Bs, a handful of Cs, and even a few Ds or Fs?

       Do you think you are the next Gary Kasparov when you beat everyone in the School for the Blind at chess?

       This is similar to The Shitty Times touting itself as the most widely-read English-language newspaper in Singapore. Wow, you are the first in a 3-horse race. Bully for you. Hooray. Ah, pssh! Buzz, buzz!

       The quality of success matters.

       I do not believe in picking one's battles. [Yes, to those who know me, I sound a little like Groo here. And yes, I know what a mendicant is. Shut up :-P ] The struggle yields its own rewards. It should be personal beliefs and conviction which drive one's choice of which side to take, and not which is more likely the prevailing team. If I am being idealistic here, then it shall serve to balance the more common criticism of my disposition towards pessimism.

       We grow through challenging ourselves. And doing that, sometimes we fail. But that is all right, because

  1. the effort is worth it;
  2. the experience is worth it;
  3. knowledge is gained from the failure.

       I have a fear of heights. The sweat glands in my palms go into overdrive. I start hyperventilating. I develop "sewing machine legs," (where my legs begin trembling uncontrollably on their own). I even lose my sense of balance, feeling irresistibly drawn to topple over the precipice.

       I took up rock climbing.

       At my peak (before I tore my ACLs), I led a 5.10b climb at Kuala Lumpur's Batu Caves. I managed to solo 2 (relatively easy, but still, 2 poor souls have died doing the same thing) routes in Echo Valley, Dairy Farm Quarry. At best, I was only an average climber but I'm sure I learned more about myself, my limits, and my abilities picking this illogical "battle" than taking up, say pool / billiards, volleyball, or basketball, where my 187 cm height would be a clear advantage.

       My hands still perspire terribly whenever I climb. The hair of my belayers either turn white from the vast quantities of chalk I use (my nickname is "Snowstorm"), or from the millennia it takes for me to get up the cliff face.

       I hardly climb now. People still hate to belay me.

       I also have a fear of water. Twice, in my childhood, I came close to drowning: once in the Telecoms (now SingTel) pool by National Junior College; and, the other time, foolishly stepping on a lily in pond in Malaysia (the water was 3 feet deep but the soft mud underneath was much, much deeper. My parents only saw my hand sticking out of the mud, underwater). One of my deepest fears is to die drowning.

       I became a Divemaster, Assistant Scuba Instructor, Solo Diver, and technical diver.

       When my Toyota blew her headgasket, the logical choice was to bring her to mechanics who specialized in fixing Supras. Never having taken apart an automotive engine before in my life (I didn't even know how to change a water pump belt), my chances of success were miserably low in attempting such a complex operation myself. Logically, the decision can be said to be even idiotic as the car was my primary vehicle (and, in the words of my Dad, I was in America to study, not repair cars). I had to take the CalTrain, the grimy VTA bus (with smelly bums and racist, white-trash, low-life, losers), to campus for over a month while my car lay in pieces, strewn around the garage.

       I scored engine repair manuals (Chilton's is crap. Go for broke and order all 4 volumes of the Toyota Factory Repair Service Manual), Supra enthusiast forums, and endured the soft bigotry of MOPAR wrenchers, in order to come up to speed. There were times where my hands would be cut to ribbons when the breaker bar broke loose and sent my knuckles slamming into the sharp edge of the turbo heat shield. 2 weeks into the DIY repair, I gave up trying to wash out all the dirt under my fingernails every night and learned to ignore the looks of disgust from prissy sorority girls as I ate my sandwich in the cafeteria. After 3 weeks, my hopes faltered: they had sunk from, "Let's fix this myself, and save a buck or two," to, "Gee... I wonder if I can put this thing back together enough to get it towed to a mechanic?" Financially, the decision to attempt the repair on my own was a disaster — I already spent more than I could have saved on automotive tools (approximately US$1200 on Craftsman tools + US$130 for repair manuals), band-aids, Neosporin, and GoJo.

       But, in the end, I not only fixed my car, I upgraded her — myself. I learnt the different levels of tolerance (or smoothness, in microns) machine shops can lap a cylinder head. I learnt the difference between a stock composite headgasket, a metal headgasket, and an O-ringed block with a dead copper headgasket (and correspondingly, the amount of boost pressure each could take); that the turbo manifold and elbow could be extrude honed for better exhaust flow; what Garrett could do with turbos; what is impeller / exhaust wheel trim, ceramic cartridge bearings; the difference between a Bypass Valve and a Blow-Off Valve; that the stock 57mm turbo downpipe with a catalytic convertor could be upgraded to a cat-less 76mm HKS downpipe and still pass the biannual smog test; discovered that "bigger is better" also applies to (overbored) throttle bodies; fabricated (and plumbed) my own external Positive Crankcase Vapor catch can so that oil vapor condensation does not lower the efficiency of the Spearco intercooler; gutted my first cat... err... catalytic convertor (evil laughter), et cetera.

       When I was done, a timing belt change no longer intimidated me. With my tools and new skills, I was able to generate side income in my spare time by working on cars for fun (personal record for changing a 1992 Honda Accord fuel filter: 12 minutes). My car mutated from a well-behaved 242hp coupe to a 400hp sleeper who ate Mustangs, Camaros, Beemers, etc. for lunch. (She also ate clutches for lunch — I often had to forgo mine to feed hers — but that's another story...)

       Nikos Kazantzakis' Alexis Zorba said, "Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive means to buckle our belt and look for trouble."

       So, rush, rush to failure. Do everything. Find trouble. Throw everything that is even remotely interesting at yourself and see if you break. If you do, learn from the failure, rise out of the ashes; and try, try again. When you succeed, go find something else to fail at.

But, heck, someone once said we should be hungry too :-)


Anonymous smloh said...

ben, this is a really great post, and inspiring. thanks.

February 23, 2007 7:41 PM  
Blogger -ben said...

Thanks for dropping by, smloh :-)

February 23, 2007 10:34 PM  
Anonymous Joe said...

You succeed in all that you do...why stop now?

March 06, 2007 6:08 PM  

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