It is Not Bad to Be Wrong: Learning is a Journey

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Being wrong or making a mistake can either be wasted or proactively used to find the right answer.

Learning

Even though I have been in the industry for nearly six years, I still see myself as a fresh out of college engineer. During those six years, I have had many memorable learning experiences where I have translated classroom knowledge into real-world applications.  Without a doubt, my biggest and most important learning experiences have come when I or my team made a mistake.

Starting as soon as the first day of school, emphasis is ultimately placed on getting the right answer and not on the journey of learning.  This method of rote memorization does not impart creativity nor comprehensive understanding of the material.  It provides a quick, correct answer with little to no substance as to why it is the right answer.  This pattern of learning is common because it is easy to teach, but learning the underlying reason of how it works takes more time and effort to impart.  A lack of understanding leads to a lack of creativity in creating solutions to new problems.

There are many tools and techniques we can use to help transition ourselves away from rigid thinking.  Group work has been heavily embraced by engineering schools all over the country, as it encourages many inputs on how to solve one problem.  Evaluating each possible solution, no matter how impractical it may seem, can help hone a final solution with more viewpoints considered.  It is important to always challenge the status quo.   The answer “That’s how we always do it” to why x instead of y is never a valid answer.  That perpetuates outdated designs and techniques.  An old idea should always be able to hold itself against new ideas if it is indeed the better idea.

Once something has been designed, a design review with other engineers helps bolster the identification of any issues people have seen in the past with a similar design.  At Bastian Robotics, we have our automation engineers sit in our design reviews to ensure that the control/mechanical interface will work as intended.  Robotic end of arm tools receive extra attention as they have special requirements on weight, center of gravity, and input/output numbers.

Prototyping is a very important tool in the engineer’s toolbox.  Making a quick mockup of a design can help validate concepts and show weaknesses before committing to a large scale version or production quality piece.  Bastian Robotics has done several proof of concepts to help prototype a larger idea to a customer.  This helps identify aspects of the current design that will work and what needs to be rethought.  It can also help identify what issues were not thought of during the initial conceptualization process.

One of my favorite things that someone I work with can do is to challenge me on an idea they don’t agree with or don’t understand.  It forces me to better explain the idea, getting in to the details of how it solves the problem at hand, and makes me think critically about why my answer is a good answer.  It can be hard to change an idea because it wasn’t meeting all expectations, but that is a critical part of the engineering process.  Learning to embrace it can make a large difference between enjoying the challenges of problem solving and resenting them.

I strongly believe that the best days I have at work are the days I learn something new. You should always be willing to help cultivate an accepting environment of different ideas to really boost creativity in problem solving.  My first lesson when training someone under me is, “I can be wrong.  If you think you have a better idea than me, challenge me.  The best case scenario is we both learn something.  Worst case, one of us will improve our knowledge.”

I would like to conclude with a couple of quotes on this subject.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

“Like success, failure is many things to many people. With Positive Mental Attitude, failure is a learning experience, a rung on the ladder, a plateau at which to get your thoughts in order and prepare to try again.” – W. Clement Stone

Colin Shipley is Senior Automation Engineer at Bastian Solutions’ robotics division in St. Louis, Missouri.

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