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July 1, 2016

One Myth Buster’s View on Success and Failure


“Fail fast” is one of the credos that has come to permeate our big data culture. The quicker we can get the bad ideas out of the way, the quicker we can find the ones that work. But as MythBuster Adam Savage said at the MongoDB World conference in New York City this week, there are different degrees of failures, and different paths to success.

“There’s failure, and then there’s failure,” Savage told an audience of about 1,500 people Tuesday at the Hilton Midtown, where MongoDB held its conference. “When we’re talking about failure, I’m talking about ‘small f’ failures.’Big F’ failure is ‘I missed my son’s bar mitzvah because I was drunk.’ But the ‘I had to submit my book to 70 publisher to make a billion dollars for this franchise’–that’s actually not failure. That’s a story of perseverance.”

Before landing a starring role next to his colleague Jamie Hyneman on what would become Discovery Channel’s hit TV show MythBusters, Savage saw his share of “small f” failure. There’s the full suit of armor made from aluminum siding that caused the budding builder to pass out from heat exhaustion during third period math during his sophomore year in high school. Then there were Star Wars episodes 1 and 2, which he worked on as a special effects designer for Industrial Light and Magic, and for which he apologized to the audience. (If Savage experienced “Big F” failure, he didn’t share it with the audience.)

MythBusters’ epic 14-year run ended in March. Since then, Savage has hit the speaking circuit to proselytize about some of the lessons he learned along the way. While Savage started the show as a guy who was good at making things–he worked behind the scenes on special effects for movies, commercials, and TV shows before landing the gig in 2003–he was surprised at the path that the show eventually took him.

In particular, Savage sounded genuinely amazed that the show had actually turned him into a scientist, even though he had no formal scientific training. He related one account of the scientific transformation that occurred early in season one, when the pair was still finding the the show’s way.

Savage had heard about the myth that a penny thrown off the Empire State Building would be traveling so fast when it neared the ground that it would kill anybody that it hit. This was a tough problem to solve, Savage explained, because, as it turns out, a penny has two terminal velocities: one for when it’s falling in a horizontal position, and one for when it’s falling in a vertical position. As a penny falls, it flips back and forth between the two modes, making it a tough question to answer.

The pair explored the problem, including working with a 400-foot vertical tunnel that NASA uses to test how objects fall in zero gravity. But the breakthrough came from a simple device that Savage created: a tube with holes drilled in the side to allow air to escape and a tongue depressor across the top.

Adam Savage on stage at MongoDB World 16 (photo courtesy of Noel Yuhanna)

Adam Savage on stage at MongoDB World 16 (photo courtesy of Noel Yuhanna)

“My theory was I could put a penny in and I got these velocities, and the penny would tumble up and down, demonstrating the two terminal velocities,” Savage said. “That theory turned out to be borne out by experiments.”

Through trial and error, Savage had hit upon a way to demonstrate a physical property in a way that worked on TV. “I had no scientific background,” Savage said. “I have a high school diploma. Jaime has a degree in Russian linguistics. We are uniquely unqualified [to solve these kinds of problems]. But this was the first time I felt like I had something to contribute to a story on MythBusters: the ability to make something clear and show and not tell.”

The show would go on for 13 more years, during which the MythBusters performed thousands of experiments and used more than a dozen tons of explosive, all of which earned Savage and Hyneman cult-like status in the “maker” community–and lining up years’ worth of material for MythBusters marathons for the Discovery Channel.

Savage and Hyneman may have started the show with one idea of what the show would be about, but the actual path the show took was something much different. This was the key message that Savage had to share with his MongoDB World audience.

“When you set out to make something, it never ends up where you expected it to go. It never ends up where you expected it to go,” he said. “This isn’t an outlier. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.”

Whether you’re making a physical device, writing a story, or designing the schema of a database, don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t end up like you thought, Savage says. Don’t consider it a failure.

“Frankly, there’s a certain point where you’re going to have to make a left turn, because you’re going to hit an obstacle, and that left turn is where all the interesting stuff in the world happens,” Savage says. “I firmly believe this in my heart of hearts. I also believe that teaching kids how to make, and just teaching them that they’re never going to end up where they started.”

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