19 November 2008

Failure is not an option

This cartoon by Hugh MacLeod smacked me on the nose when I saw it on his blog last week. 

I'm a big fan of Hugh, especially his ideas about "How to Be Creative" and "Social Objects as the Future of Marketing." But this cartoon hit a nerve.

A lifetime ago, I had just started working for a magazine in the photonics industry. I was a skilled journalist and had an abiding interest in science and technology but my month or two reading & writing about photonics hardly made me an 'expert.' And yet, that's what journalists have to be, in essence: Instant experts on whatever topic they're assigned in any given day, and a different topic every day. That's what drove me into journalism when dad wanted me to go on to law school. How cool is a job where you get to keep learning every day of your career?

Burned out in the newspaper business after a few too many of those obligatory calls to the family of the kid who was killed by the drunken driver, I went into technology journalism, where I'd always hoped to end up. So I was two months into a very technical new area of expertise when a contributed article fell through -- a week before the print deadline. 

Every trade magazine editor in the world knows the sickening feeling that comes from staring at three to five empty pages of text with no way to fill it. And thus, the Senior Editor called a quick hallway meeting to announce The Big Problem. Not understanding the panic, I offered a solution: "Why don't I just write something to fill the space?"

My exuberance was borne of 10 years in the daily newspaper business, whereas my colleagues' pessimistic frowns were products of life in the monthly magazine world. To me, five empty pages meant 10 phone calls to technical experts, a couple of days of typing, and a quick editorial review. As doubtful as my colleagues were, they saw no other options. 

And yet, the publisher had to voice one last pessimistic query: "But what if you fail?"

(With my 20/20 hindsight, I know this moment was the initial salvo from the energy vampire I would battle for most of the next seven years.)

"I won't fail," I said, shrugging. "And if I do -- which I won't -- you'll be no worse off than you are right now, with five pages of house ads to make up for the missing article."

There's a scary place between your comfort zone & failure. You know that place -- it's right there where you doubt your success. In that place, a wall pops up, and on the wall is a sign: "You are too stupid to do this." This is where some people fail, and learn that even if people laugh at their failure, they will live through it. And maybe they also "learn" that they are stupid. "Oh, I'm not good at math." "Oh, I just can't draw." "Oh I tried that and I failed, so I don't do it anymore." But other people knock the damn sign down and find some crazy way to get over/under/around/past that wall. And maybe we are never the very best in the world at that one thing, but we do just fine, thanks.

And so I didn't fail. I called the experts, I did my interviews, I wrenched my brain into a knot until I understood what they told me about ultraviolet detectors, and if one expert wasn't available, I called another one. Because it never occurs to me that failure might be an option. 

Today, more than 10 years after that impromptu hallway meeting, I printed out Hugh's cartoon and hung it on my wall at the Much Better Place where I work now. But I scribbled a quote from a favorite movie next to the guy on the left. It says, "Laugh while you can, monkey boy."

11 November 2008

Helicopter Dunking

This week's work adventure has been getting certifications so I can go offshore to shoot & observe my employer's technology "in action."

I have some thoughts on what made this training particularly successful -- hint: the instructor was passionate about safety & teaching! However, I'm only going to write the *story* tonight because my sinus cavity is killing me after today's little activity. 

Today's class was Water Survival, including Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET). Morning was mostly in the classroom, and afternoon in the pool learning various water survival techniques. The highlight, of course, is the helicopter dunking. I did not shoot any video or stills of my own class but here's a video that captures the concept.

Basically, you strap yourself into this simulated helicopter body, which the trainers then dump into the pool and flip on its head. This results in massive amounts of chlorine up your nose, no matter how well you try to blow out your nostrils. You then have to pop a window, release your seatbelt and pull yourself out of the thing. 

My class comprised 14 people -- me & 13 guys (surprise, right?) They loaded two victims at a time in the simulator for five dunks in various configurations: with windows, without; straight down or rolled over; 'easy' window or 'hard'.

Naturally I was in the very last pair of the day. As the second-to-last group was finishing its third dunk, we could hear thunder outside the metal building that housed the pool. (It had been raining all day). I joked that this was a good thing because it helped add some realism: Clearly the storm was the reason why our helicopter was ditching into the Gulf. 

Picking a window
My partner asked if I had a preference as to which window I'd like to start on. To remove the "hard" window, you had to push hard in just the right place (upper left corner near your left shoulder), and it would pop out. To remove the "easy" window, you flipped open a latch right next to your right hip & then it fell out with a little tap. We'd be doing four practice dunks on one window and one 'final' dunk (sort of a final practical exam) on the other window. My completely logical choice was to take the 'hard' window for my four learning dunks and the 'easy' window for my final exam, rather than risk an embarrassing 'redo' dunk on the final. 

However, when I headed for the seat next to the "hard" window, the instructor pointed at the other seat and said, "I think you should take this seat. " Ugh. If he had added "little lady," it would not have been more condescending. Anyway, I declined. He then said, with a little frown, "I strongly encourage you to take this seat." I thanked him for his encouragement but buckled myself into the other one.

The first dunk had us popping the windows out on surface, followed by a straight drop into the pool. OK, it did take some OOMPH to pop that window out, but escaping through the open window was a no-brainer. 

The second dunk left the windows in for a full straight dunk. So we had to pop the windows under water, then open our seatbelts & get out. OK, it still took some OOMPH to get that window out, but ultimately it was no problem. Unfortunately, my partner couldn't get the 'easy' window open & had to be 'rescued' so he could try it again. "It's not easy to find the latch," he complained. The instructor responded, "No, not if you are trying to find it with your eyes...." 

After my partner completed his redo, we were loaded and strapped in for the third dunk -- but we were unloaded quickly after the crane operator saw lightning and said, "Everybody out of the pool." We stood, shivering in our soaking wet coveralls for about 15 minutes while the front moved through. Again, I couldn't help but laugh at the idea of having a good reason for the helicopter to ditch.

After the lightning abated, we got to the third dunk: windows out and helicopter inverted (rolling over). This was the first taste of what had made everyone else in our group come up coughing & gasping. It's disorienting, yes, but more significantly, the water is violently turbulent, like having someone aim a firehose up in your face. Even with great suggestions from a more experienced classmate about how to avoid it, I got one very uncomfortable, very chlorinated snoutful of water. Didn't stop me from getting out, but it left me (and my partner) sputtering a bit.

Dunk #4 was the pre-final: Windows in, dunk & roll, pop window, release seatbelt, get out. OK, no problem, but more chlorine up my nose. My partner also made it.

Final exam
For dunk #5, we switched sides. This put me on the right side of the helicopter, opening the 'easy' window latch with my right hand. Piece of cake, right? Right. Let's go!

Splash! Nice big breath. Simulator stops rolling, reach over to the easy window and grab the easy little latch. The ... um... latch. Hello? Where the hell is the damn latch? Woah, no panic, you have plenty of time & breath here. Stop. Relax. Remember the trainer's words: Don't try to use your eyes. Put my hand back on my hip, flip it over, there's the latch. Dang, my thumb just barely fits in that little space. Pull the latch, tap the window. Use the same hand to reach for the seatbelt. Oh no, you don't; your outside (right) hand goes on the fusilage to re-orient yourself to "out". Inside (left) hand pulls the seatbelt latch. Pull myself out, snort to the surface. Success!! No re-run!

I remembered only later that of the 14 people in the class, three had to redo at least one dunk -- all on the 'easy' side. That latch is a booger.

Anyway, I'm now certified for SafeGulf, HUET & water survival. Yippee!!