Saturday, December 8, 2007

NPR - When failure is success

We all know or have stories where failure lead to success, and we all know the story Thomas Edision used when inventing the light bulb, where after over all the failures to find the filament which wouldn't burn out quickly, he said they discovered over a thousand ways that didn't work. Sometimes success is simply persistence and the patience to persist. Nothing more, just keep going.

And we all know the idea that if you have experienced failure, you haven't tried hard enough or long enough. I can't say I agree with that because there are some things or some times where stopping is better and smarter than continuing, the old adage about repeating the same experiement over and over expecting new or different results. If you continue, you have to change something or you're simply doing the same thing again.

I saw this after I started with the USGS in Eugene, Oregon. The USGS reviews every field office for their field techniques and office procedures to produce water resources data to ensure everyone meets national standards and the data meet a minimum level of quality. It's the reputation of the USGS to do this consistently every year everywhere. And I spent a career doing and ensuring that.

In the first review a new employee a reviewer commented about the field and office work of one senior technician, stating that he was simply applying the same technique he learned nearly 30 years earlier. The technician was angry, and expressed it at the open discussion session with the reviewer. He told the reviewer, "I have nearly 30 years of experience." The reviewer responded, "No, you have one year's experience repeated 30 times."

And how was that possible? When we make a discharge measurement, we divide the flow into 20-24 sections with 4-5% of the total flow in each section, but that's not pragmatic or realistic as the flow varies with the width, so you have to keep adjusting the width of the section as you measure. This technician didn't and simply divided the total width by 24 and made equal width sections.

Some of his measurements didn't meet discharge computation standards. And this is what the reviewer was saying. He had failed to learn and failed to become a better technician. That was startling to me as a new technician, and I used it to always keep learning and trying in the field, within the accepted methods. This allowed me to leaern to adapt in the field and adopt small variations as the situation or circumstances demanded. In short, I kept my mind open to being aware in the field, and not simply keep doing the same thing over and over.

But I just didn't learn this idea then. I actually learned it from the thesis for my master degree. I went to Western Washington University to study geography, especially natural hazard perception. I watched the floods in the Skagit River valley in December 1975 and couldn't understand how people could live in an obvious floodplain and deny the existence of floods. I decided it would be my thesis.

I focused my entire graduate days to that topic from the first quarter of my classes and worked with my advisor to start the thesis with papes which helped write the thesis, as appropriate or accepted. It didn't always work and I did research on other topics, such as the impact of Canadians on the local economy, beach erosion hazards in a local coastal area, and so on. But I kept researching and reading about natural hazard perception and the Skagit River valley.

I managed to write the background chapter (one of three total) through several classes, writing essays on the theory behind natural hazard perception, the history of flooding in the Skagit River valley, and the methodology behind my surveying techniques. I even managed to conduct the interviews for class credit as you're allowed in the program. I was three months from the competion and graduation. So where did things go wrong?

They didn't go wrong as simply imploded from insufficient responses from the local population. I was interviewing three small communities, each about 100 homes in the floodplain, and I needed a minimum number of people to take part, first in a return mail survey and a second followup personal interview. I didn't realize that most were very private and hated intrusions in their life.

I eventually ended up with only 25-33% responses, which was relevant and interesting, but insufficient for any significant anlaysis and conclusions. Normally this is a fair number to make conclusions but in small groups, it's not. And after two-plus years of work and 80% of the thesis written, reviewed and approved, it crashed and burned in a pile of papers in a box.

Since I had been also looking for a job I got the opportunity to work for the USGS, first as a hydrologic technician and later, after finishing and defending the second thesis topic to get the MS degree, as a professional hydrologist. The career lasted almost 28 years, nearly 13 of those in the field in three states, Oregon, Arizona and Washington. I don't regret it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, in the end, I don't know my life and career would have been had I finished the first thesis. There were some opportunites, for jobs and further graduate school, as one professor later determined my thesis was a dissertation and was angry at the Department for allowing this - he suggested I transfer to continue it to a PhD, but I didn't. I sometimes wonder what would have been, but not too long.

I liked what I did. And to me it was never a failure, just something I learned that didn't work then.

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