Best Guesses & Intelligent Failures


When I was a kid, I remember people in my home town professing to have degrees from the School of Hard Knocks. They would say it in jest of course, but implied was a pride in taking risks and learning from mistakes to shape their futures.

In a world of persistent innovation, being perfect at what you do may be safe but it isn’t good enough. To never make mistakes is to stop changing, learning and growing, and closes the door to innovative possibilities. Allowing ourselves to make mistakes is important if we are to gain awareness of our world and the changes within it.

Innovation requires experimentation, and in some cases, failure. When I was doing synthesis in the lab, I knew that the reaction pathway that I wrote inside the front cover of my laboratory book was not likely to hold up to the experiments that would follow. The hypothetical pathway represented my best guess for the synthetic target—my goal. It was understood that I was setting off on a transformational adventure in which a set of starting materials would be converted through a series of steps into the final product. It was also understood that nine out of ten of the experiments that I would try along that synthetic pathway might not work as I had planned, and that I would need to make numerous tweaks to my methodology along the way. With each failure I would learn more about the chemistry of the system, and draw closer to the solution.

This experimentation with a system is something that, as chemists, we readily understand. It is fundamental to the scientific method: define a hypothesis and then set out to prove it. However, we seldom give ourselves permission to experiment with our careers. We are supposed to have it all worked out perfectly from elementary school to retirement. We are supposed to know our path, and we are supposed to follow it. As the world continues to change and external pressures affect us through competition, the economy, and societal demands we are forced to evolve or lose our place.

Win Borden once said, “If you wait to do everything until you’re sure its right, you’ll probably never do much of anything.” He was right. As we progress in our careers, we must give ourselves permission to experiment with our future. We must push to try new experiences and reach beyond our comfort zones, because we never know when our current pathway might disappear. We must also be prepared for serendipitous opportunities, because it is these fortuitous, unplanned events that propel us onward to success.

I’m not sure if Louis Pasteur had a degree from the School of Hard Knocks, but I am certain that he got it right when he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” By being aware of our environment, learning from our mistakes and expanding our knowledge base through our careers—we position ourselves to maximize the serendipitous events that evolve in the process along the way.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.

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