This post is penned during a moment of extreme frustration, beware!
One of the reasons I loved the original Star Trek series is because no matter what the odds, no matter how hopeless the circumstances, no matter how impossible the foe, Captain Kirk always found a way to think his way out of the mess. He never ultimately failed or lost to an opponent, not once, not ever. That makes a great hero and fun TV! Fictional super heroes do things that normal human beings could never possibly do … like fly, or be stronger than steel, or always win.
Stress and the Brain
I don’t have time to read stuff like the following link, especially when I’m coming up short of a promised deadline. Maybe you do? http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
I’m told that when we begin to get stressed, the front area of the brain that is responsible for logic and reason starts to shut down, and command functions begin to be transferred back to the “fight or flight” portion of the brain. I think about standing up in front of a group and speaking, then sitting down and wondering what I even said? I think about arguments that got out of hand? Where was the front part of my brain in all of that? I think about looming deadlines and mounting stress … and … and … and mounting stress!
My job largely amounts to puzzle solving. I love the process and I love finding clever solutions. But if I ask you a riddle or give you a logic problem, can you give me a specific estimate of how much time it will take you to solve it? That’s not how puzzle solving works, it’s not a step by step recipe that leads to a solution in a known time. Failing to solve the problem in time stresses me out! What is needed in these situations is clear, logical, and calm thinking. But that is the first part of the brain to turn off during stressful situations! It’s exactly the part of the brain we desperately need the most. I know all this, and I watch helplessly as it happens. What does that create? More stress of course which accelerates the process of losing the most important part of my brain!
What is the solution?
No, seriously, what is the solution???
People often say they do their best work under pressure. I know for myself, I do my worst work under pressure. I strive whenever possible to get a long head start on a complex and difficult task. I strive whenever possible to identify and solve the hardest parts of the task first. But that isn’t always possible.
So instead I sometimes see failure coming weeks away, maybe like an asteroid on a collision course with earth. I’m very serious about the task, I do everything I possibly can, I pour in all my energy and expertise, but it’s not always enough. Things I thought would be easy turn out to be 10x more difficult than imagined. Things that were working break for unexpected reasons. Things that shouldn’t take time, take way too much precious time.
Captain Kirk to the rescue? Sadly, no … he is a fictional character. In the real world the asteroid looms bigger and bigger, it’s trajectory is a mathematical certainty. The physics of the impact can largely be predicted. At some point it becomes clear my efforts will fall short and there’s nothing left to do but watch the asteroid in it’s last few hours of flight. Then <boom>.
Is it just me that fails colossally?
It usually seems like I’m the only one that makes a miserable mess of things I try to do, the things I’ve promised I could do, things I’ve been paid to do. Everyone else is posting about their giant success on facebook. Everyone else’s resume is a spotless collection of triumphs. But not me. Maybe once or twice I got lucky and the rest of the time is a huge struggle! Honestly though, the only reason I’m posting this is because I know it’s not just me. Any sports fans out there? How many teams and players succeed to win the championship every season? What percentage of players ever win a championship in their whole career? Political success and failure? How many new businesses succeed versus failing?
High Profile Failures
By mentioning specific companies, I don’t mean to imply specific people or imply anything negative here. My intent here is to show we are all in this together and we all, even the best and most successful of us, suffer set backs in our work. I live and work in the world of drones (or small unmanned aerial systems, aka UAS’s). This is a tough business. For all the hype and excitement even big companies can struggle. Gopro recently did a full recall of their new drone product. Hopefully they’ll try again in 2017, and hopefully the process will go better for them. Recently 3DR, the king of DIY drones announced they were cancelling all their hardware efforts to focus on a software package for managing data collected by drones. Parrot (another big name in the small drone market) just announced layoffs. Edit: 12 Jan, Lily just announces it is dropping out of the drone race and shutting down. Edit: Facebook Aquila crashed on first test flight. Edit: Titan (google’s own high altitude effort solar powered effort) is shut down. It’s tough, even for the big guys with enough money to hire the best engineers, best managers and do professional marketing.
There are even higher profile failures than these … Chernobyl, TIger Woods, the Titanic, Exon Valdez, the Challenger, and most Sylvester Stallone movies except for Rocky I.
So the asteroid hit. In the last moments we just threw up our hands, gave up, and just watched it come in and do it’s destruction. The dust is settling, what happens next? Maybe the asteroid wasn’t as big as we imagined? Maybe the damage not as severe? Maybe life goes on. In a work context, maybe you take a big professional hit on your reputation? Maybe you don’t? Maybe it’s about survival and living to fight another day?
Failures suck. Failures happen to everyone. Failures are [usually] not fatal. The sun will still rise tomorrow for most of us.
Survival – Yes?!?
If you are reading this, you are still here and still surviving. That’s great news! Hopefully I’m here too! Lets all live to fight another day. Let’s all help each other out when we can! There is a word called “grace” which is worth looking up if you don’t know what it means. It’s a quantity that we all need more of and we all need to give each other in big healthy doses!
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” — Budweiser ad, 1938. (Not Winston Churchill)