LogicWarrior Demand Reason

13Sep/100

The Cult of Failure

The web 2.0 credo of "fail quickly" elevates the notion of failures to what I consider to be unsafe levels.  Failure as a method of education is valid only if it meets some basic criteria:

  1. The mechanism of failure is discernible - Cases where the mechanism of failure is not discernible lead to brute force scenarios.  Take for instance breaking a combination lock.  Each failure only reduces the solution space, succeeding after the 1000th try vs. the first leads to no gain in wisdom.
  2. The mechanism of failure is controllable - Many failures are caused by events beyond ones control.  If you're planing an event that's canceled due to a tornado warning, there's little learned by this failure.
  3. The cost of failure is low - I don't think anyone would want their surgeon, architect, or lawyer to learn by failure.

So, when can failure work as a learning tool?

  1. When it leads to efficiency -  Taking a cocktail of over the counter drugs to deal with a cold may "cure" most simple ailments but this solution will be neither healthy in the long term nor useful in figuring out specifically what was wrong.
  2. When the cost of prediction is high - Much time can be wasted trying to make the best decision.  At a former employer, 2 12-person meetings were spent determining which of two printers to buy.  Assuming the value of a person-hour of work was greater than $20, the cost difference between the two was less than the lost time.  In this case, the cost was time.
  3. When it advances the frontier or knowledge - The LHC may discern the Higgs Boson.  A much more interesting result may be not finding it as it would suggest the standard model may have fundamental errors.

I'd prefer the maxim "fail quickly" be replaced with "fail wisely".

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