This is a picture of a failure:

A Failure

It’s my school technology project from when I was about 11. I found it last weekend while helping mum and dad to clear out the loft.

Why have I kept it so long? Because it was a brilliant failure.

The project was this: Build a bridge between two tables. A prize will be awarded for the bridge that supports the greatest weight.

Further rules:
 – The bridge must be at least 7cm wide and 40cm long.
 – You must be able to roll a toy car along its entire length.
 – You can only use one standard-sized cereal carton, white (school) glue and white paint.

Since this was a project at the end of a technology module in which we had been learning that the triangle was the strongest shape, I made my bridge out of three triangular prisms stuck together.

I measured, cut, glued and painted, and finally the big day arrived. We all brought out our bridges. Some had made suspension-type bridges, others had simply folded their card over and over and over to make the thickest road they could. Mine was the only bridge built with the triangular prism structure. Victory would surely be mine.

The first entries were tried out. One by one, the bridges were fitted across the gap between two school desks. Cars were rolled successfully from one end to the other. A cradle was hung beneath each bridge, and weights added one at a time.

Some bridges held only a dozen or so grammes before crashing to the ground. Others supported five or six 10g discs before folding under the pressure.

Then it was the turn of my bridge.

The bridge spanned the gap with room to spare. The toy car trundled across happily. The weights were added.

Unlike for most of the other bridges, the teacher didn’t start with 10g and increase slowly from there. It was clear that my structure would be able to withstand far more weight than the crumpled specimens which had preceded it. Weights were added 100g at a time. 400g, 500g, 600g… still my bridge stayed strong.

Sadly, history does not relate at what weight my bridge finally collapsed. All I remember was that it left the opposition far behind. I remember the gasps of awe from my classmates as yet more weights were added. I remember how impressed the teacher was.

And I remember the disappointment when, as the bridge finally crashed to the ground, the teacher said “Well, this design clearly supports far greater weight than any of the others, but I’m afraid it’s still disqualified.”

You see, before doing the weight test we had also measured the dimensions of the bridge. It was easily long enough, but not the correct width. The teacher had tried his best to find a section which met the 7cm criterion, but unfortunately it was a very neat 6.5cm all the way along.

I had planned it out so carefully, but had not quite been able to fit the design on the piece of card. I’d tried and tried, rotating it this way and that, using every possible part of the box, but had finally decided I’d have to make my prisms just a tiny bit narrower.

I wasn’t trying to bend the rules, I just forgot at that key moment quite why my design was that width in the first place. Had I remembered, there were plenty of things I could have done to retain my winning shape but add just a tiny bit of extra width, but I just didn’t think. I didn’t go back and read the instructions one last time. I didn’t check my finished piece against the specifications. I just finished it off and blithely walked into my shame and humiliation.

So why have I kept this shameful failure all these years?  Because it taught me so much.

Had I won the contest, I would likely never have remembered it again – the prize was only something like a chocolate bar and the congratulations of the teacher. I would not have revelled in the success for more than a few hours, nor would I have so clearly remembered how much stronger triangles are than flat pieces of card.

Most significantly, I would not have remembered the importance of meeting all the criteria in a competition. That failure taught me to read carefully any forms I have to fill in or tasks I have to complete which will be assessed by others. I’ve learned to, wherever possible, double-check that I have met all the criteria, and the more it matters, the more careful I am. (No prizes for guessing how many times I’ve read and re-read this post!)

I learned far more from that failure than from any long-forgotten successes, so I will keep the bridge forever. It is a picture of failure, but of a failure which paved the way for many more successes.

What valuable lessons have your failures taught you? To what successes have they opened the door?

5 Comments On This Topic
  1. Peter P
    on Apr 26th at 8:37 am

    You were 11…. so, was that Mr Watson?…. no, you didn’t have Mr Watson…. Mr Dearlove?

    No… it was that guy who lived on our street… right? Mr Morris.

    Brian Morris? Was that his name?

    Which one did I say “I’m her sister” to?

    • newsong40
      on Apr 26th at 8:53 am

      I can’t remember which teacher it was. I THINK it was Mr Morris. Wow, I’d forgotten Mr Dearlove! (And still have no recollection of Mr Watson – who was he?)

      I think it must have been Mr Morris to whom you said ‘I’m her sister’. He was scary enough to fluster anyone. Nice, but initially scary!

  2. Melissa
    on Apr 27th at 10:37 pm

    Wow! To take all of that away as an 11-year-old? I’m intimidated by your engineering and self-analyzing skills! 🙂

    This is such a great post, Jennie. So much can be avoided by simply double-checking things.

    A few years ago a close friend of mine grew distant towards me, and despite my best efforts to ascertain why, the relationship cooled. Eventually she wrote me a letter with a list of grievances. My reaction was to reply back with a letter. I wish now that I would have gone to her in person. It took her months to reply to my letter (although we saw each other almost daily in person). That delay caused much pain and the effectual death of our friendship. I still wonder if things would have been different if I wasn’t so afraid of discussing it in person.

    • newsong40
      on Apr 28th at 10:29 am

      Ha! Thanks Melissa. To be fair, I probably didn’t take ALL that away when I was 11 – it’s had a few years to percolate! 🙂

      So sorry to hear about the end of your friendship. Oddly, I once had the complete opposite – I knew what I had done and apologised to my friend, but my timing was off and she didn’t really respond. I wrote a letter, she replied and we exchanged one after the other until finally everything was ironed out. (It took months and months, and much heartache for both of us)

      The only reason we are friends now, though, is because at some point my friend took the courageous decision to forgive me and trust me. I can remember the day it happened – all of a sudden from guarded-ness and suspicion came the most amazing generous forgiveness.

      So all that to say, your method may or may not have been right, but don’t beat yourself up – at some point the person who feels wronged has to take responsibility for her/his own feelings and reactions and either forgive or not.

      Don’t allow a root of bitterness to grow, though – you never know what’s going on in her heart, there’s always hope that she may one day realise what she’s missing, forgive anything there is to forgive and come back. Here’s hoping…

      • Melissa
        on Apr 28th at 4:43 pm

        Thanks for that reply, Jennie. I am battling bitterness over the situation. It’s something my husband and I were just discussing two nights ago. With our upcoming move, I realize that I probably won’t see her again. Ever. Which has caused me to quit fighting those bitter feelings. I really appreciate the encouragement, because I do want to live in hope and not anger. 🙂


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