Reframing failure: Lessons from the SeaPerch National competition

  • Wednesday, June 19, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

Imagine a NASCAR stock car entering the third corner on the first lap at Daytona, running at 160 mph, driver laser-focused, running in the middle of the pack but intent on working their way to the front. Then imagine the right rear tire falling off, lug nuts bouncing every direction, causing the car to go into a slide, sparks flying, tire bouncing down the track. The driver wrestling the car all the way through a crash, fighting g-forces, other cars, asphalt and grass, and finally finding a way to the infield safely and coming to a shuddering stop.

How would you classify the incident? Would you call it a colossal failure? Your NASCAR team, along with advertising dollars has put a lot of effort into being successful: long hours, engineering, safety, the list goes on and on. One way to measure failure is a feeling, how much the agony of defeat stings. Some sting more than others, usually is comes down to expectations. An underdog team fighting for a bronze medal in the Olympics probably feels better than a favored team wining silver and coming so close to gold. Each person on a team might feel this sting differently depending on their responsibilities, position and the length of time they still have in their career to make up for a defeat.

I think there are two main components of failure that need to be reframed, one is about participation. If you are out there failing then you have already won the first battle because you got out there and tried. You can’t win if you don’t play. So, whatever your interest, talent, ambition, element, lane … go for it. Risk that agony of defeat, if you can.

Find the right community in which to participate in and find people who can push you but are within your range of proficiency. There are many ways to group people into compatible groups to maximize everyone’s time invested and to allow them to experience enough success to continue. Early in the process too many negative experiences/emotions can cause people to quit or fail in the first battle. You need to build up some reserves in order to face failure. Operating in non-competitive or practice situation can help build these reserves.

The second component that I think as a culture we could improve on reframing is how to view defeat/failure. One way to look at the NASCAR wreck would be to blame the lug nut manufacturer for making an inferior product or question the competence of the pit crew in allowing the lug nuts to work themselves off. In most situations we jump to conclusions before we gather enough evidence to see what actually went wrong.

Although performing a post-analysis can be costly and time consuming, there are a great many lessons to be earned by a failed performance. In some ways, we simply don’t accumulate enough of a body of evidence to accurately assess our abilities.

Our NASCAR example would probably have a significant amount of data to comb through to determine where things went wrong: video footage, work logs, parts, driver feedback and so forth. Not only are you concerned with one mechanical failure, and although catastrophic to the one race, it does not tell the whole story. We would assess how the driver performed under extreme conditions, how the engineering of the car held up to the stresses, and how safety components successfully deployed to keep the car from flipping over. Where at first glance we may see failure, at closer look we may discover amazing success.

Great teams believe in each other and their abilities. They enjoy the process, celebrate victories in their own ways and don’t dwell on the past, but allow it to frame the present and they see hope in the future. The thing I’m most proud of with our Sequim Middle School SeaPerch (Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition) Nationals team is the attitude they have towards the future.

Team members for Sequim Middle School’s “Some Float … Some Don’t” are Ruby Coulson, Julia Jeffers, Finn Marlow, Kari Olson and Desmond Tippins.

I believe they quickly recycled the pain of defeat into a motivating force for the future. They took note of the innovation others had made, identified areas of improvement in their own skills, and committed themselves to keep trying to find success in the future.

Our team could focus on negative things like running triple the time we expected in the obstacles course due to a snagged tether. We could throw in the towel and vow never to complete an engineering project in the future when your propeller mounting fails at the worst possible time.

Instead, I think we can choose to see how the skills developed in 3-D modeling and printing prepare us for the future, appreciate our understanding of buoyancy, electronics, team management, scheduling, public speaking, technical writing, and many other educational areas. Project-based learning can have many layers, facets and learning outcomes, not all of them are easy to detect.

When measuring success (and failure) I think we need to look at little deeper. This generations ability to step up to new challenges in an increasingly complicated world is truly impressive!

Congratulations to this year’s Sequim Middle School SeaPech Nationals team and to the rest of the students who participated in this learning experience!

A special thank you goes out to the Sequim Family YMCA for allowing students to test their ROVs! Five students went to Nationals (at the University of Maryland), 27 attended our local competition and 48 completed the project in class. This would not be possible without a wonderful supportive community, thanks to Kurt Turner and Gail Sumpter for coordinating our pool time.

For students entering the “Sequim Middle School Robotics and Engineering” program next year … prepare to “try”!

Caleb Gentry is a teacher and advisor at Sequim Middle School.

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