Failure beats inaction every time

Several years ago I attended a workshop at MIT to learn a computer programming language. On the first morning the crew of instructors spent at least an hour showing us examples of what could be done with this language. I recall thinking that this was a waste of time since each of us had traveled far because we already knew that this was a powerful tool.

Following this display of projects we were handed a very brief set of commands; 12 as I recall. We spent about 30 minutes going over these commands. Then the instructors said in essence, “OK. Now go make something.” The student response was, “What!? We don’t know how to make anything. That’s why we came here, to have you show us how to make stuff.”

The staff politely reminded us that they had shown us many examples and insisted that we knew enough to start. We complained and pouted, to no avail. Eventually we began discussing amongst ourselves what each of us was interested in doing. By noon most of us had some kind of idea. So, of course, we went to lunch.

When we returned we were informed that we could only work until 4 o’clock because the last hour was “show and tell.” At this time each of us would explain our project and show what we had accomplished so far. This caused more complaining and pouting. But we were told that this workshop had a motto. It was “Demo or die!” meaning either do something or get out. I hoped that was mostly hyperbole. But at 4 o’clock I had to explain my little project and show what measly progress I had made.

It was very intimidating, until I saw that everyone else was in about the same situation. To my surprise, in one case, I was able to make a helpful suggestion to another person. Everyone kindly appeared to be interested in what I was trying to do and offered suggestions for me. Suddenly I didn’t feel so dumb or intimidated.

Our five-day project proceeded in the same manner each day. A few brief instructions each morning, a couple of new commands and then back to work on our projects. If we finished a project, or became disenchanted, we were encouraged to start another. Each day we helped each other, had luncheon conversations about what we were doing and ended each day with a demonstration. By Wednesday we were informed that Friday afternoon was to be entirely devoted to “show and tell” of finished work. Oh, and a little party.

All week long I had been impressed with how interesting the workshop was proving to be and how it totally dominated my thoughts and time. Evenings were spent in distracted thought about my project. Luncheons were extended conversations about ideas, problems and solutions. I alternated between being engaged and intimidated. Walking to campus the last day I discovered the power of the workshop approach.

It was just like life.

We are born with a limited set of skills and abilities. We spend time watching examples of what can be done by others who have mastered the machinery and language. We begin to try to use our limited abilities to accomplish our own goals. We have modest successes and failures. At irregular intervals we are asked to demonstrate our abilities to others. We receive instruction and suggestions. Eventually we share experiences to encourage others. Occasionally we have a “big show and tell” and sometimes a party.

The great danger in the world is not that we will do something wrong. It is not that we might fail to accomplish what we wanted. The grave danger is that we will do nothing. That we will sit back in the safety of our lives, watch a little television and play a few games. This is one of the things that makes science so compelling.

“Demo or die!”

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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