Planning For Failure

I often hear stories from the churches I teach at about church leaders who won’t let the sound team “turn any knobs” on the mixing console. The leaders expect a great music mix to happen every week simply because it previously sounded great one time. Or perhaps there was one lucky service where none of the mics had any feedback. The assumption is that if there were no problems last week, there shouldn’t be any problems this week as long as the sound team doesn’t turn any knobs or push any buttons.

I’ve also heard stories about sound-system installers who “set the board once” and tell the sound team they’re only allowed to move the faders but not to touch any of the “special knobs” on the top half of the mixer. You know the knobs I’m talking about: those mysterious EQ and AUX controls that if turned incorrectly can cause all sorts of feedback and assorted sonic mischief.

But I’m here to tell you that to make a great mix and to turn yourself into a great mixer you need a few failures. Failures are good for you and as I often tell my young students, you learn way more from failure than you do from success. How so? Let me illustrate with a few personal examples.

Robot City

When I started my first real job as a robotics designer I held the dubious position of being the youngest design engineer in the history of the company. I was fresh out of school and had already been designing my own gadgets from mini-bikes to rockets from the time I was ten years old. And while I entered the job with a great deal of confidence, I was soon in over my head. Because instead of just building a wacky gadget for myself in my basement, now I was doing it with someone else’s money. And it was not only the money; I had a team of mechanics and electricians who would build anything I drew up on a blueprint. This was both a dream come true and the biggest terror of my design life. What if I designed something that was a failure? Then everyone would know that I had made a mistake. Would I lose my job if I failed at a design? Talk about second guessing myself….

No Fear

Now these weren’t misplaced fears. I was designing packaging robotics that would go on an assembly line manned by dozens of shift workers. And each assembly line would produce upwards of 10,000 items per shift with two shifts a day.  So if one of my designs failed after being installed it could cost the company literally thousands of dollars per hour while the production line was shut down to fix whatever I had goofed up. Talk about more than a little pressure for the new “wunderkind” in engineering.

So as I was designing a new way to automatically stack boxes prior to feeding them into a shrink wrap tunnel, my boss asked me why I seemed so worried about this particular project. I replied that it would be the first project I had designed for the company that was totally mine from start to finish, and I was worried about failure. The boss then asked me to take a walk back to the “North Wall” to look for parts to build a prototype of my new machine. Now the North Wall was so named because it was a parts graveyard behind the north railroad dock where all the old scrap machines were dumped. As we picked through the various dead machines looking for a particular relay or air cylinder, he told me the stories behind each part. This one had just worn out, he explained, or this had been used for a product we no longer made, and this one was from some failed experiment. And as he showed me more and more “failures,” many of which were his own, he kindly explained to me that I too would have some failures on the North Wall.

Failures, I thought… here I was terrified of a  mistake that would cause my design career to come crashing down, and here he was already expecting me to fail. But then he told me the real secret to doing great things. He said that if I didn’t have any failed experiments on the north dock, then I wasn’t trying hard enough. That was an interesting perspective. If I took the easy way out on a project, then while I might not fail, there certainly wouldn’t be any new ideas or great accomplishments. Hmmmmm …. that made sense. I did finally go on to design a unique box stacker that the company later patented, but that’s another story.

Go Ahead, Make a Mistake

More recently, I had a young audio apprentice who was hugely talented, but just hadn’t made enough mistakes yet to be great. So when he asked why I was so quick at finding sound system failures and what he could do to do get better, I told him he just needed to fail more. Yes, it still sounded counter-inituitive, but what makes each of us an effective troubleshooter or audio mixer is the memory of past failures. Sort of like the first time you stuck your finger in a light socket you learned that getting shocked was to be avoided, or stepping on the gas while driving your car on black ice could put you on a Nantucket Sleigh Ride through a field. I’m sure you remember that lesson, don’t you?

More recently, I had been pestering my 17 year old son to double check the traffic while pulling out of our driveway, but it wasn’t until he pulled out in front of a big truck that screeched to a stop six inches from his driver’s door that he understood what I was talking about. White as a sheet hours later, he told me that he now understood what I was bugging him about. But it never made an impression until he made that mistake himself. I’m just glad he didn’t get T-boned.

Take It To The Limit

This is all to say that the next time you’re running the mixing board and you’re afraid to try something a little over the top for fear of failing, go ahead and push the envelope a bit. And if you fail, then learn from that mistake and move on. But if you succeed, then you’ve made one more step towards being an effective sound technician, and moved one step closer to the best of all mixing situations — a church service where absolutely nobody complains about the mix. Yes, you’re working towards a null-zero situation, which seems counter-intuitive, but is, in fact, the primary goal. Getting everything to work without feedback and so everyone can hear is the first step. Only after that can you reach for the next level of inspirational mixing and that’s only achievable after you’ve made a lot of mistakes and failed a few times.

Go Big or Go Home

Therefore, go ahead and plan for failure, but try for greatness. Show up at practice with the praise team and experiment with the equalization or monitor sends. If it all works, then that’s great. However, if it doesn’t work, that’s even better. Now you’ll know the limitations of the sound system and what to avoid. You’ve felt failure and know that you can survive. That’s the only way we grow both as individuals and technicians.

Mike Sokol (Student of Failure)

Copyright Mike Sokol 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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