Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

― Robert F. Kennedy

With each passing day I am more dismayed by the tendency for mediocrity to be excused by people in the work they do. Instead of taking pride in our work, we are increasingly simply acting life mindless serfs farming and toiling on land by aristocratic overlords. The refrain is so often based on ceding the authority to define the quality of your work to others with statements like the following:

“It was what the customer wanted.”

“It met all requirements.”

“We gave them what they paid for.”

All of these statements end up paving the road for second-rate work and remove all responsibility from ourselves for the state of affairs. We are responsible because we don’t allow ourselves to take any real risks.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

― Benjamin Franklin

encryption-NSA-spying_SS_127879991_090613-617x416The whole risk-benefit equation is totally out of whack for society as a whole. The issue is massive across the whole of the Western world, but nowhere is it more in play than the United States. Acronyms like TSA and NSA immediately bring to mind. We have traded a massive amount of time, effort and freedom for a modest to fleeting amount of added security. It is unequivocal that Americans have never been safer and more secure than now. Americans are have also never been more fearful. Our fears have been amplified for political gain and focused on things that barely qualify as threats. Meanwhile we ignore real danger and threats because they are relatively obscure and largely hidden from plain view (think income inequality, climate change, sugar, sedentary lifestyle, guns, …). Among the costs of this focus on removing the risk of bad things happening is the chance to do anything unique and wonderful in our work.A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer pats down Elliott Erwitt as he works his way through security at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The core issue that defines the collapse of quality is the desire for absolute guarantees that nothing bad will ever happen. There are no guarantees in life. This hasn’t stopped us from trying to remove failure from the lexicon. What this desire creates is destruction of progress and hope. We end up being so cautious and risk adverse that we have no adventure, and never produce anything unintended. Unintended can be bad so we avoid it, but unintended can be wonderful and be a discovery. We avoid that too.

I am reminded of chocolate chip cookies as an apt analogy for what we have created.nestle-tollhouse-cookie-doughIf I go to the store and buy a package of Nestle Toll House morsels, and follow the instructions on the back I will produce a perfectly edible, delicious, cookie. These cookies are quite serviceable, utterly mediocre and totally uninspired. Our National Labs are well on their way to be the Toll House cookies of science.

TollHouseCookiesI can make some really awesome chocolate chip cookies using a recipe that has taken 25 years to perfect. Along the way I have made some batches of truly horrific cookies while conducting “experiments” with new wrinkles on the recipe. If I had never made these horrible batches of cookies, the recipe I use today would be no better than the Toll House one I started with. The failures are completely essential for the success in the long run. Sometimes I make a change that is incredible and a keeper, and sometimes it destroys or undermines the taste. The point is that I have to accept the chance that any given batch of cookies will be awful if I expect to create a recipe that is in any way remarkable of unique.

IMG_26881-594x396The process that I’ve used to make really wonderful cookies is the same one as science needs to make progress. It is a process that cannot be tolerated today. Today the failures are simply unacceptable. Saying that you cannot fail is equivalent to saying that you cannot discover anything and cannot learn. This is exactly what we are getting. We have destroyed discovery and we have destroyed the creation of deep knowledge and deep learning in the process.

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

― Paulo Coelho