How to Overcome Failure in Engineering

We’ve all been there, the really low test score, a project that failed, an unsuccessful meeting and even an unsuccessful year or semester. If you’ve read my engineering story, you know that my freshman year was full of these failures but it didn’t stop there. I’ve been in meetings where I felt prepared going in and like I didn’t know anything coming out. I’ve made test scores in the 30s, forgotten I was supposed to be speaking on a panel and not shown up, and even forgotten project specs during a presentation. All of these experiences can leave you feeling defeated, especially if you are new but as you go on and gain more experience you learn how to cope with them. Small failures in engineering are inevitable, it’s how you deal with them and what you learn from them that makes you a good engineer. 

Today I want to talk about some strategies for recovering from these failures and how to keep it from getting to you.

I think the first step is getting clear on your overarching engineering goals. 10 years down the line, what do you want to be doing in engineering and what do you want your relationship to engineering to be? Do you want to go to grad school? Do you want to work for a big company or a startup? Why do you want these things? Let me give you an example of how this helps when you’ve had an engineering fail.

Let’s say you make a really bad test score, like a 32 on a physics exam. It is so easy to plug this into the grading scale for the class and plug that number into the GPA calculator and immediately begin wondering if you should even be an engineer. After you’ve gone through all of that, take a step back and ask yourself, how does this bad score and possible GPA drop affect my big goal. 10-20 years from now will it matter? Chances are, you’re saying “Yes, it will affect me! I won’t get the job / get into the grad school I want because of this”. Now that probably isn’t true, it is rare that one or even a handful of bad grades actually affects this, but even if it does, does it really affect the big goal? Maybe you don’t go to your absolute dream grad school but you go to another one, get just as good of an education, and 10-20 years from now are just as qualified as if you had gotten into your dream school!

Another thing that has helped me so much is the idea of not compounding mistakes. After every failure, reset. If you have a bad meeting, reset and proceed with a mindset of “How can I take what happened in there and use it to improve my work” Don’t let that one failure hang over you and affect your performance on everything moving forward. This even applies to things as small as sleeping through your alarm. This doesn’t mean you will have a terrible day and get nothing done, it just means you woke up a little later.

All of that being said, there will still be disappointments that you can’t fix or can’t explain. I had at least 4 grad schools reject me. That is one of those things where I will just never know the reason, so I can’t really use it to improve. I just had to continue to chart my path through engineering without those universities. Sometimes, a failed project is just that. You did an investigation to find out if something would work and you found that it didn’t. It’s disappointing but it’s just a part of pursuing new or competitive things.

Figuring out the mindset portion of this and knowing how to mentally readjust after a failure is great and gets easier with time, but I want to also talk about what you need to DO after some of these failures.

Let’s start with the exam example.

  1. Review your exam thoroughly
  2. Go see your professor and go over your revised exam. Ask every question you need to until you fully understand what is going on. Then ask them what you can do to succeed in the class. Are there patterns other successful students show that you can follow? Are there other resources for help or tutoring that you may not know about.
  3. Find some accountability. Start going to office hours every week whether you need help or not, or find a friend who is doing well and ask to study with them.

Now let’s talk about coming back from an unsuccessful presentation.

  1. Act fast! Do these steps as soon as possible after the presentation
  2. Review the problem. Was there a question you didn’t know how to answer? A design flaw you hadn’t noticed before? Nail down the problem
  3. Do your best to solve the problem. Find the information you were missing. Clarify the justification for your design decisions. List other possible solutions to the issue that was brought up.
  4. Follow up. This is why you act fast. Within a day or two, you should politely contact everyone involved with something like “Thank you for bringing this design issue/question to our attention. We have reviewed the information and are planning to address the issue in this way. Please let us know if you would like to discuss this and thank you again for your feedback”

This is the best possible way to respond to these situations. You don’t want to get defensive, just politely follow up and show that you value the feedback you received.

Let’s also talk about recovering from an unsuccessful project. This is one of the worst feelings but probably the thing you learn the most from. It is discouraging, but there are steps you can take to move on faster and use it as an advantage in the future. 

  1. Assess the impact. Determine if there are any immediate problems that are a result of this failure. Does the schedule of a larger project need to be changed? Do other project specifications need to be updated? Make sure the “failure” is contained and doesn’t cause any other failures.
  2. Once you know the problem is contained, start to examine what happened.
    1. Why did this project fail on a technical level? What actually went wrong?
    2. Why did this happen? Were specifications unclear? Was the timeline too rushed? Was the scope too ambitious?
    3. What caused the problem you found in step 2? Try to get 3-4 levels down into what happened.
  3. Figure out what YOU could have done differently. Even if you really had no part in the failure, still try to figure out one thing you will implement in all future projects that will keep you from being in this same position again.
  4. Clearly define the steps you will take in the future to keep this from happening including technical level changes, and schedule, work distribution, and communication changes.
  5. Figure out how to honestly communicate what happened and your plans to solve any resulting problems. It is important to do this step as quickly as possible.

As far as action steps go, the most important thing is to make some change. If you continue to work in the same way, your exam scores won’t go up and you will repeat project failures. Engineering is full of risks and will therefore always have some failures, but learning from each one is how you become not only a better engineer but a better engineering leader.

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