10,000 failures

10 04 2011

In an article in Wired magazine James Dyson, the inventor of amongst other things the cyclone vacuum cleaner talks about the invention process:

An inventor’s path is chorused with groans, riddled with fist-banging and punctuated by head scratches. Stumbling upon the next great invention in an “ah-ha!” moment is a myth. It is only by learning from mistakes that progress is made.

I’d like to suggest that the process of making a good show is very similar. The process that takes us from initial idea to successful show is long and winding. At each successive iteration we should evaluate how we are progressing, how close we’ve come to our ideal and then rewrite, research or review what we are doing.

Dyson calls this “a never-ending process that is enormously rewarding, and endlessly frustrating”. From his initial idea of a cyclone vacuum it didn’t take long to make a working prototype but it took an amazing 5,127 prototypes to get him to DC01 (left) which went to market in 1993. And he didn’t stop there. The latest version of his vacuum is DC35! (right)

I’m not suggesting that a new show would take as long as a new vacuum cleaner to produce but I think we can learn from Dyson that an innovator and a presenter should always be looking to improve and everything we do can be improved upon. Dyson says:

When it comes to failure, I’m trumped by Edison who famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Those 10,000 detours resulted in the Dictaphone, mimeograph, stock ticker, storage battery, carbon transmitter and his joint invention of the light bulb. In the end, 10,000 flops fade into insignificance alongside Edison’s 1,093 patents.

What is failure in terms of a science show? What is a flop? It is harsh and unrealistic to think that it is a show that for some reason dies on its feet in front of an audience. I’d suggest that it could be an idea that never makes it into the writing process, or the perfectly good research that goes into the background of a show that gets discarded from the final script, or the various attempts at structuring and storytelling that get rejected as being not quite right, and finally the hundreds of little changes that get made as you perform the show for the first twenty or so times.

Only then, after twenty performances, hundreds of script changes, countless alternate structures, pages of rejected research and a sheaf of shelved ideas, do we approach something that we are actually happy with. If our shows do not have this background we should be asking ourselves- is this show as good as it could be? Truly good shows, like truly great inventions, are the result of thousands of iterations and not a single moment of inspiration. As science presenters we need to become reflective practitioners constantly striving to get better and better. As Dyson concludes:

No one is going to get it right the first time. Instead of being punished for mistakes along the way, learn from them. I fail constantly. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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