04 February 2009

Failure: definitions and causes

In this series of essays, I will attempt to dissect the composition of the causes and consequences of failure in our society. Namely, what produces failures, what is the character of those failures, and what are the negative social consequences of those failures. In later essays, I will also try to present solutions to the results of failure in our society and suggestions for minimizing the influence of failure producing forces.

What is failure? A question with an obvious answer, it would seem. Failure is the antithesis of success. At its simplest, failure is any result or outcome which is the opposite of what is defined as "success" in a given situation: generally that outcome which was not planned, anticipated, or desired by the failing party. Yet as with everything, this is more complex that this mere statement of fact.

Some failures are obvious, conforming every way to the basic definition: a man's advances are rejected by a woman, government performs a "service" poorly, a Wall Street Ponzi scheme implodes, a contestant or team loses a game.  These negative outcomes can manifest themselves in wide ranging forms, from minor annoyances to life-or-death situations.

Yet there are hidden, insidious failures that populate everyday life sight unseen. Small failures such as this may not be visible immediately, but they almost always contribute to greater failure. Every large, spectacular failure is almost always caused by a cascading series of smaller failures which collectively push the situation inexorably toward ultimate failure. For instance, a team may make bad plays or commit errors during a game that gives the opponent the winning edge, or small mistakes may be made during a development project in terms of calculation or merely forgetting needed details which renders failure certain as mistakes are built into the system that cause cascading collapse down the line with use. (This is a textbook definition of how computer bugs come to exist.)

Failure is not always an active process. Often failure occurs not due to incompetent actions, but because actions which were needed or required did not occur. Attention to detail is neglected, which by itself may not cause evident failure but almost always contributes to greater failure. For instance, if a freeway HOV lane gate left open in the morning for inbound traffic was not closed to accommodate the outbound direction of traffic flow in the evening, traffic would be able to enter the HOV lane in the "wrong" direction and risk a head on collision. (This type of failure actually happened in Pittsburgh some years ago; the party responsible was convicted of murder; a very just outcome, as we will explain in later entries.)

Highly related to failure is incompetence. It is not always directly true that incompetence breeds failure, as even the best operators in a given field have their "off" days. However, incompetence is a major cause of failure in today's world, even more so as the number of incompetent individuals continue their seemingly inexorable increase. It would not be completely fair to state that incompetence is the cause of all failure in the world, but we can at least offer this truism of situational ethics:

Incompetence, when present, inevitably breeds failure.

To understand failure is to understand incompetence. In many ways, as we explore failure, we are also exploring the deepest mechanics of incompetence.

Except for natural processes untouched by man (such as landslides in remote mountain locations), very few failures in the world are not somehow anthropogenic (man made) by origin. While natural forces may be instigators of failure, insofar as these forces work on the man-made environment and impact that environment negatively, man is the cause of these failures. We care very little if the natural forces generated by a hurricane levels a natural area inhabited only by wildlife; we care substantially if the same forces undermine man-made flood protection bulwarks and cause wind-borne storm surge to inundate a major city.

Thereby, failure can almost always be traced to the incompetent actions of some person or persons responsible for that aspect of a system or a situation which failed. The ethics of how to properly punish those who commit incompetent actions, and what deterrents should be installed to hopefully prevent future failures, is the moral quandary of the ages, the source of the greatest dilemmas pondered by our solons and great thinkers.

I have explained the basis of incompetence in this post. Some points of this article and related items bear summation here:

Incompetents, at heart, are lazy and shiftless individuals who believe they are "superior" to others. Even if they claim to feel strongly otherwise, the fact is that people who lack respect for their jobs or for other people will generally have little respect for anything else that does not provide immediate gratification to them.

Incompetents are possessed of weak character and slippery morals. Their main goal in life is to achieve for themselves a situation where they can live in comfort without commiserate expenditure of effort or skill. This generally means that they are drawn to subsidy for their means of survival.

Incompetents believe that they are always right, that they rank above everyone else, and that they are consequently above the rules of life, including that rule which states that able bodied adults must support themselves. No amount of cajoling or bluster can convince an incompetent to abandon his morally sketchy ways.

Incompetence is a character trait that is decided upon early in life. A child makes a moral choice at a young age whether to attack life via mooching or via productive activity. (It is unknown whether this decision is influenced primarily by environmental factors or by the inherent "tenor" of a person's soul. I tend to favor the latter explanation.) It goes without saying that incompetence stems from the "moocher" personality. This decision shapes all later moral character and is the key which separates "good" people from "bad" people. Once this decision is made, it is virtually impossible to change, as it would entail a change in fundamental personality and sense of self which is wrapped around the core character. However, with extraordinary willpower this can be accomplished, and there are many stories of reformed individuals who have successfully made the transition from scumbag to valued contributor to society.

In the next installment of this series, we will review how incompetent actions cause failures in work, in play, and in life in general.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Since you are not perfect, that must mean you are also incompetent. Because your actions, at some point in your life, have caused failure(s) of some kind.
If you do not admit to ever causing failure(s), this would imply that you believe yourself to be incapable of mistake or fault, and therefore "superior" to other people (and incompetent).
Everyone is incompetent. What is your point?