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Thought for the Day: Making Mistakes and Moving Forward

Robert Wilson was, in my mind, that last of the great physicists.  He was an expert in both theoretical and experimental physics, and also intensely practical.  He was, for example, the first director of Fermilab -- the preeminent high energy physics laboratory in the world when it was built and for decades afterward -- and as director he opened the lab ahead of schedule and under budget.  (An amazing feat for any project of that scale; nigh on miraculous for a government project.)

I have a reason for telling you all this, but first I have an admission to make.  I was late for morning seder a couple of weeks ago.  There; I said it.  What's the big deal, you ask?  I daven k'vasikin.  Still you are wondering what's the big deal?  Since we always daven at sunrise, my morning seder is learn then daven during the winter; daven then learn during the summer; learn a bit less, daven, learn a bit more during the spring; learn a bit more, daven, learn a bit less during the  autumn.  It was during the winter, so it was "just" a loss of learning, but what terrified me was the thought that it could have just as easily happened during the summer.  If you daven k'vasikin, then you understand.  If you don't: Imagine training for the olympics; years and years of training.  Finally the games arrive for which you have been preparing your whole life.  Then the morning of the event.  Your parents, siblings, coaches, friends... everyone is either in the stadium or glued to their TV.  And you oversleep.  That's what it's like to miss vasikin minyan.  Every morning, we feel that.

So when I overslept that winter morning a few weeks ago, I was feeling pretty down as I finally dragged myself into beis medrash well (well, well) after my scheduled time.  Then I remembered and incident with Bob Wilson when they were building Fermi Lab.
Just a little more background: The actual piece of equipment that enables all that physics is a particle accelerator in the shape of a ring, one kilometer in radius and encased in a tunnel a few meters underground.  The tunnel itself is constructed from string of hundreds of specially built concrete cylinders.  The concrete cylinders themselves were constructed in two halves.  The bottom half was laid first, then the top half carefully lowered onto it, then then a sealant was applied and they moved on to the next one.
One day the construction leader came to Bob Wilson's office upset and scared.  He nervously relayed that one the crew had made a mistake on one of the cylinder tops and laid it a bit crooked... and when the crane let it down, the whole thing cracked.  I new one would need to be constructed, leading to delays in a tight scheduled and an overrun on a tight budget.  Bob Wilson's response was giddy elation!  "I am using tax payers money," he explained, "and I am constantly worried about waste.  Now that you tell me that one little mistake in procedure caused it to break, I know that I have not wasted taxpayers money on overengineering!"

We are using time given to us by HaShem Yisbarach.  Wasting time it more than unconscionable, it is a crime against the Creator of the highest order.  If I never overslept, then I would always have to wonder how less I could be sleeping and how much more I could be learning.  My grandfather (the college professor) always told his students that if anyone ever got 100% on his test, then the test was a failure.  He wanted to know how much his students had learned, not just if they could pass some minimal standard.  If we always score 100% on our self-imposed schedules, then we are failing to accomplish what we could.  Failing occasionally is the mark of success.

Of course I also made a change to improve my performance.  After discussion with a good friend (you can't really succeed alone, you know), I decided to add another alarm.  So far I have managed to turn that alarm off when I have already arrived at beis medrash.  Small comfort after the devastation of oversleeping, but comfort none the less.


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