Years ago when I was consulting with architectural and engineering firms about their Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD) processes and procedures, I always preached the importance of backing up their data. Back then, hard drives for personal computers were very expensive and nowhere near as reliable as they are today. The only way to reliably back up the data was to copy it to an external tape or backup device. There was no “cloud” storage with automatic backups.
One day as I was working on a long-term software project for a manufacturing firm, I was deep into programming some complicated software when my hard drive died. It suddenly dawned on me that I had not followed my own advice and backed up my hard drive any time recently. I immediately panicked and started to sweat. I realized all of my client files were on the hard drive. They were now gone. I even sent the hard drive off to a specialty company to see if they could recover any data. They could not.
So I was forced to start over with a major portion of my software project, starting from scratch in a lot of instances. But you know, the software I finished was way better than what I had been working on when my hard drive crashed and burned.
Early in my woodworking hobby I set about building a cabinet for my brother-in-law to house his stereo equipment and music collection. I was routing dadoes in the cabinet sides for the shelves. On one pass, I noticed the router motor slowing down. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the 3/8″-deep dado I was routing was now ramped deeper across the cabinet side and eventually routed through the 3/4″ plywood and into my workbench. The router bit had slipped out of the collet during the cut. My project was ruined. I turned out the lights and went to bed.
Lying in bed that night I began to wonder — could I possibly make a patch to hide my mistake? So the next night, I spent hours fussing over the fit and grain pattern to create a plug that fit perfectly. I learned a lot. To this day, you have to look really hard to find the patch.
As I spend more time in the workshop, I still occasionally make mistakes on projects. We all do. Sometimes the mistakes are minor and easy to fix. Sometimes it means cutting another part. And, at times, it means scrapping the project and starting over. When this happens, it’s normal to get angry at ourselves (or others), perhaps say a few choice words, or stomp out of the shop (or all of the above).
Sometimes it’s hard to swallow our pride and admit to ourselves that our ideas aren’t going to work. I recently worked for a few hours on a small project and realized it wasn’t going to work, no matter what I did. So I put it aside and tackled it from a fresh perspective the next day. I was much happier with the results.
What can we learn from these experiences? Sometimes catastrophic failures and mistakes can cost you dearly. Perhaps not always in financial terms, but in lost time and resources. But mistakes can make you take another look at what you were doing and rethink the problem. Often, what you come up with is a better solution than what you were working on.
Yes, there are still times when something goes wrong and I simply turn the lights out in the shop and calmly call it a day. Tomorrow brings a fresh start. In the meantime, I give a lot of thought to what happened and why. And then I start thinking of ways not to let that mistake happen again. More often than not, the ultimate solution is miles ahead of where I would have been otherwise.
Yes, mistakes can cost us dearly. But they can also be the best teacher.