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Aug 4, 2008
If any good came out of last year's collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis it may be the opportunity to learn, following a wave of bridge inspections nationwide spurred by the failure. 

A report out this week by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials finds more than 150,000 bridges are in need of repair

In the wake of a failure, very typically there will be a renewed caution. 

Duke University professor Henry Petroski has made a career studying design failures, which he says are far more interesting than successes. 

"Successes teach us very little," Petroski said. "A successful design doesn't tell us how close to failure it might be. 

In fact, building on success, Petroski argues, often leads to failure, and bridges provide a dramatic example. 

"Typically, the longer you go without a failure, the more confident we become," he said. "But there's then a seemingly unavoidable temptation to then start cutting corners." 

Take the example of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington - a long, slender suspension bridge that opened in July of 1940 that was 57 years after engineer John Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge - one of the earliest and most famous suspension bridges opened in New York. 

The designer of the Tacoma bridge was guilty, perhaps, of engineering hubris - pushing the limits of suspension bridge design, and even reducing the number of support cables to create a sleeker look. 

It was barely four months after the Tacoma bridge opened that 40 mile-an-hour winds all but turned its thin steel span to rubber. The wobbly bridge stood for about an hour until it collapsed. 

"That bridge was built deliberately as a slender, aesthetically-pleasing bridge," Petroski said, "and all the lessons from the 19th century that John Roebling had laid out in the Brooklyn Bridge had been forgotten." 

Of course it's not just bridges. From occupants in the White House, to the cars we drive, to the people we celebrate, failures and perceived failures are all around us. 

Sometimes when things fail, they were simply ahead of their time. Did you know the fax machine was actually a failed invention in the 1840s? 

The copy machine was invented in 1937, but the idea was rejected by the likes of GE and IBM. It would be 10 years before Xerox's machine would make its debut. 

And the Apple Newton - the first handheld PDA - was a flop, but its innovations can be seen today in the wildly successful iPhone. 

"So we gotta be careful not to just be tattooing and stamping 'loser,' 'winner' on everything," said historian and CBS News consultant Douglas Brinkley says failures can become success stories in all human endeavors. Time often changes our perceptions. Consider our presidents … 

"The most popular slogan about Harry Truman as president was, 'To err is Truman.' His public opinion polls were in the 20s." 

Truman was so unpopular he didn't bother to run for re-election in 1952. 

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.

Author J.K. Rowling
"Now Truman is the name of one of our 4 or 5 great presidents," Brinkley said, "because with a bit of time we've been able to see that Truman created the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council, Department of Defense, the Pentagon. He oversaw the Berlin blockade, the creation of Israel, China becoming communistic, the Korean War, the creation of NATO, overseeing nuclear policy … I can go on and on. We say, 'Wow, what an amazing man that he dealt with this plethora of post-World War II problems and got most of them right.'" 

Other notable "failures": the CalTech men's basketball team which hadn’t won a conference game in 23 years … John Grisham, whose first novel was rejected by a dozen publishing houses … and Henry Ford, who went bankrupt 5 times. 

And on to the automotive world, where "Edsel" is synonymous with failure. (But perhaps, like beauty, failure is truly in the eye of the beholder.) 

In 1958, the car was introduced with great anticipation. Ford expected to sell nearly 200,000 that first year. But the Edsel flopped. 

Ford made Edsels for three model years, sold fewer than 100,000 total, and lost hundreds of millions of dollars. 

But Griffin, Ga., neighbors Frank Harris and Steve Durham are Edsel lovers. Between them they own 23 of the cars. 

"Back then, if you had an Edsel and wanted to get rid of it, you'd have to give it away," said Harris. "Pay someone to take it. Nobody wanted them." 

Harris got this 1960 Edsel convertible from his father. Through painstaking restoration he has returned it to its original shine and luster, in the process turning an automotive failure into a small fortune. 

Half a century ago an Edsel would have been sold for roughly $3000. And what is Harris' restored model worth today? 

"Because of the low production it's got a value of $200,000," he said. 

"Two hundred thousand dollars! That's not a failure!" said Strassman

"No, that's not a failure!" said Harris. 

More "failures": Artist Vincent van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his lifetime … Orville Wright, who was expelled from elementary school … and the Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since 1908 (and they haven't played in one since 1945). 

Is Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones a failure? Surely not: his .369 batting average leads the major leagues by a significant margin, yet that means he's making outs - failing - more than 60% of the time 

How does his deal with the perspective that when he goes to bat, more times than not, things aren’t going to go his way? 

"Well, most of the time it's not and that's why you have to be able to accept failure," Jones said. "It's a lot of work to do here in the big league is how you accept failure. You learn from your failures. You come back, you apply what you learned, your previous at-bat to your next at-bat, and hopefully you get a base hit. Hopefully you get a home run!" . 

And so it goes … Michael Jordan failed to make his varsity basketball team … Oprah Winfrey failed as a news reporter … Winston Churchill finished last in his class. 

Failure puts you in pretty good company … company that includes J.K. Rowling, the world's first billion-dollar author. The creative wizard behind "Harry Potter," the most successful novel series in history, who made failure the topic of her speech to this year's Harvard grads. 

"A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless," she said. "And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life." 

Perhaps, then, there is never a reason to fear failure. Instead, as Rowling might suggest, we ought to embrace it. 

"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default."

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Posted: Monday August 4, 2008, 3:27 pm
Tags: inspiration failure success [add/edit tags]

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