I received a recent timely reminder that a long-planned blog, this one, I had yet to write. Many many blog spirits lurk in the great beyond waiting for inspiration or structure. Once I understand how they might go, I write them down.
This blog is on failure, specifically, personal failure. It is inspired by this CV of failure. It may seem that by advertising my screw ups, I’m quietly projecting calm confidence in my non-failures, which can be reviewed on my LinkedIn. This is not the case. While I have enjoyed a modicum of success at times, my personal recollection of what I am about to share reminds me just how contingent all such good fortune is on luck and the generosity of other humans with whom I share this compact pod of spacetime. Less humblebrag, more wallowing in imposter syndrome!
In its current form, this blog is a work in progress. I am happy to hear about stuff I’ve happily forgotten and to update it as time goes on. It is highly likely that even my blog on failure will fail to be comprehensive. In partial compensation, I’ll include what lessons these failures earned.
Remember, if you’re not failing some of the time, you’re not trying hard enough!
These are all ancient history, but I remember them well enough.
- I failed my first exam in my senior year of high school physics.
- I did not win the “dux” or top of grade award in years 7, 8, and 9 of high school.
- I was not first (or second, or third) in my class in any subject in the early years of high school.
- I was particularly unspectacular at Indonesian, French, the first four years of Latin, religious studies, music, physical education, shop class, and visual arts.
- I did music exams in trombone, but never did much better than scraping a pass.
- Nearly every time I got an award at school assembly, I managed to trip on the stairs going onto the stage.
Lesson: Try harder. Eventually I came to realize that getting good grades was as much about test-taking strategy and revision as it was about just knowing stuff. None of the classes taught in high school required original research or even thought, and the syllabus itself was compact enough to thoroughly learn, if you took some time to focus on it. I had to accept that the other students who were consistently beating me were not freaks of nature, they just tried harder than I did – which was not all that hard!
- Throughout high school I competed in various maths and science competitions, rarely achieving more than a “bronze” placing, which was a score of about 30%. We were growing up in the shadow of Terence Tao, who had already published research papers by the time we took our first derivative. I knew and was friendly with dozens of other children my age in New South Wales, Australia, who consistently outscored me.
- In 2003, I did not qualify for the chemistry or mathematics Olympiad training.
- In 2004, I did not qualify for the biology or mathematics Olympiad training.
- In 2004, I attended the physics Olympiad training class but did not qualify for the team, not even close.
Lesson: Even if you’re at the top of your game at the age of 16, there’s still a long way to go. In 2005, I worked through Halliday, Resnick and Krane (a mid-tier undergrad physics text) from cover to cover and barely qualified, went on to further training, narrowly avoided being kicked off the team, and competed in Spain. I met some amazingly smart people, and managed to take a small lesson in humility.
I have auditioned for about 30 amateur musicals and other shows, and got a lead role in precisely zero of them. Chorus work, set construction, and all the other stuff is still fun.
- Nearly failed class on financial mathematics – due mostly to a schedule clash and total non-attendance.
- Nearly failed class on statistics – due mostly to lack of ability.
- Took grad level courses on complex analysis and passed with a score of about 15%.
- Lost my academic scholarship on a technicality, but still had to do without the money!
Lesson: Grades are a means unto an end, and they’re a noisy indicator of progress. I eventually understood what grades I needed to get into the next thing, and where I needed to focus my attention for learning stuff. I could easily have spent much more (or even any) time in the library and taken advantage of those resources for learning while my brain was younger and more malleable. Many people do. I am fortunate to have little reason to regret spending time not reading books in the library, but that was by no means a guaranteed outcome.
- Failed to hitch-hike to Oymyakon. After about 6 weeks of travel I got within 50 miles, but didn’t have the resources to walk or travel further and had to turn around.
- Failed to get to Jack London Lake.
- Failed to climb Klyuchevskoi Volcano.
- Failed to execute planned trips to Kazakhstan, Iran, or Kurdistan (among others).
- Still haven’t been to Africa, South America, or Antarctica.
Lesson: Nature gives the test first, and the lesson second. Sometimes one has to accept a consolation prize.
- Was not admitted to Stanford, MIT, Cornell, or Princeton. Stanford’s rejection was particularly snarky, quite unprofessional and hurtful.
- Was failing stat mech class – passed by the TA in return for no longer submitting my ungradeable homework sets.
- Was fired by my professor. Long story.
- Got zero postdoc offers. Left academia. Wrote a book about it.
- Dabbled in geophysics, papers rejected by journal of last resort.
Lesson: I learned a lot about how organizations work, how I work, and more obvious things to avoid doing in service of prolonging a career.
I’ve had incredible luck and opportunity in my professional life. That said, I’ve still had some notable failures, particularly in interviewing.
On the strength of having survived five years at Caltech, I can usually get an onsite interview, but during various periods of job hunting I’ve completely messed up probably 20 technical interviews, in all kinds of spectacular ways. I’ve been on both sides of the table in recruiting and it’s a super tough thing to do, but it’s important to remember that in addition to getting the privilege of working at Hyperloop and JPL, recruiters or interviewers at many other major companies have looked at my resume (maybe even more than once) and decided to pass.
At Hyperloop I was initially hired as an intern. I interviewed at JPL three times over five years before getting hired there.
I can’t go into vast detail on professional failures where I’ve screwed up some aspect of my job, but I can think of quite a few times either I made a mistake or just didn’t get to do what I wanted to do. I have not yet made the mistake of attempting to cover up or shift blame for a professional error.
I applied to go to Antarctica with the Australian, New Zealand, and US programs, at various times and under various ploys. No success (yet).
Rejected from the astronaut program once so far.
Lesson: Better to err on the side of saying less and asking questions in interviews. If you want the job and the interviewer is wrong about some technical matter, don’t get into an argument about it. Always be open and honest about personal errors, but err on the side of caution when criticizing other people’s work. Assigning blame is easy, fixing a real problem is hard.
Readers who know me well may be surprised that I’ve had failures in sport, because their existence would imply that I do sport at all. Yet, it is true.
- Soccer, high school, D or E team (lowest division), won maybe one match ever.
- Tennis, high school. Fairly consistently found my rank in the bottom 10%, among a lovely assortment of gentlemen who appreciated the social aspect of the sport.
- Sailing, high school. Never made it from the training team into the competing team. I was reliably always trying weird things but never actually going fast. I spent most of one memorable regatta upside down with a broken mast.
- Skiing, high school. I regard myself as a competent skier but almost always came last in the competitions. Turns out that getting down the mountain without falling over is not the peak of skill, it’s kind of the minimum.
- Swimming. We all had to try out for the team. I lost my swimming costume on more than one heat, and usually regarded it as a win if I got to the end of the pool still on the surface.
- Ultimate Frisbee. I played a game once. I couldn’t walk for a week.
- Regaining/orienteering. In high school I caused my team to break a safety rule resulting in disqualification. We were on track to set the course record. This took me years to accept.
- Skydiving. Still haven’t got my license.
- Still can’t ride a unicycle, despite owning one for 7 years. (Edit: I finally learned during lockdown in 2020. It’s surprisingly fun for an activity that often crushes your testicles.)
- Never got any muscles until I started lifting a toddler a hundred times a day.
Lesson: Be humble in victory, and gracious in defeat. Winning and losing is less important than how the game is played.
I strongly identify as outdoorsy and I’ve done a bit of mountaineering.
- I’m lucky if I actually camp more than once a year.
- Last time I went camping, I had to bail because of wildfire smoke.
- I haven’t summitted a substantial peak under my own power in many years.
- Still can’t climb harder than about 5.9, in a gym.
- I attempted Cactus to Clouds (Mt San Jacinto) in late 2014, and turned around about a thousand feet short of the summit. Actually, I strongly believe bailing on a climb is more successful than dying, but I still didn’t make the summit that day, or year.
- On a hike I co-led, one of the hikers had to be helicoptered out. Unsure if I could have helped him better to get out under his own power. But no-one was injured.
- While skiing in Bulgaria I managed to get lost while going off piste, alone, in the late afternoon, wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. I am still alive but not so sure I should be.
- While solo hiking in my teens, I decided to indulge in a bit of freesoloing. A great idea, until I ripped off a hand hold.
Lesson: Finding time for exercise has not gotten easier with age, and yet its importance has only increased. Need strategies here.
Romance, friendship, and family
I can’t divulge too much detail but I’ve had my share of unforced errors here too.
Lesson: If in doubt, love more. Give more. Practice empathy and consideration. Treasure your friends. Put in the effort to stay in touch, especially after leaving school. Call your mum. Spend time with older relatives while you still can.
- I failed my Australian driving test 2 or 3 times for stupidly obvious reasons.
- I was a voluntary passenger in a car that had a fairly major accident.
Lesson: Driving isn’t hard on a technical level. It’s hard because it’s so physically and mentally easy, to get into a situation where every possible outcome involves major injury or death for someone. Young people generally have ambitious risk postures and cheap cars and it kills thousands of them and others a year. The more skilled I get at driving, the more scared it makes me.
I have about 250 hours as PIC of Cessna-type aircraft. I’m still alive so there’s that! Never had a crash.
- My examiner on my final checkride discovered the plane I was flying didn’t have a valid airworthiness certificate. I had checked it and misread it. In fact, my club had been using the aircraft for six years in that state and no-one had noticed. But as soon as the examiner pointed it out, it was undeniably obvious. So I didn’t become a pilot that day.
- While coming in to land at my local airport, confusion between a helicopter and the tower resulted in them nearly hitting me. If I had been a bit more paranoid about the situation, I could have prevented it from occurring despite the failures of the other two people.
Lesson: There are risks in flying (and other low risk, high consequence activities) that can’t be internalized and thus controlled. If you can’t accept that some non-negligible risks are outside your control, perhaps it’s time to find another hobby.
I talk about all sorts of projects and things on Twitter, this blog, and elsewhere. I don’t talk as much about the ones that didn’t work or went nowhere.
- I spent months trying to reduce some MRI brain data I had to a decent 3D model for 3D printing. I made 15 or so attempts. I got close, but close is not good enough. (Edit: I finally did this during lockdown in 2020. I leaned heavily on MeshLab.)
- I designed and 3D printed a jet engine. Not only did it not work very well it also failed to be retweeted by Adam Savage.
- I came up with an idea to search for small main-belt asteroids using stellar occultation, with millions of cell phones networked across the world. I thought it was an awesome idea, until I realized I made a small coding error and the utility of the approach was about a million times worse.
- I’ve built a few high performance drones as part of a project to break the sound barrier under electric propulsion. Not only have I not (yet) done that, I’ve managed to crash all the drones, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
- I do handy jobs around the house, usually quite well. I have managed to screw up plumbing badly enough to result in flooding more than once, though.
Lesson: I like to look at failed projects as practice for the next one. Many ideas that I’ve used unsuccessfully to try and solve one problem end up being useful later on.