Things, however, in our work as well as our personal lives do go wrong. But do they have to? Really? And can we prepare for it?
The Real-Life Murphy and His Law
When things go wrong, many cite Murphy’s Law as the reason. Murphy’s Law is the simple maxim, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Many of us quote it all the time. But do you know the origin of this commonly accepted law and what it really means?
According to legend (and some extensive “Googling” by yours truly in researching for this column), this law originated in 1949 at Edwards Air Force Base, the famed flight test facility in California’s Mojave Desert (tinyurl.com/lmnh6xd). Captain Edward A. Murphy Jr. was an aerospace development engineer with a team conducting rocket sled tests to determine how humans could tolerate g-forces (a “g” is the force of gravity acting on a body at sea level) flying at high speeds and on rapid deceleration and impact. The Air Force wanted to find out how many g’s a pilot could tolerate in a crash. It was commonly thought at the time that this threshold was 18 g’s, above which the human body would disintegrate, and every military aircraft was designed based on that level. After World War II, some began to question the accuracy and acceptance of this statistic.
To determine the truth, a decelerator was constructed using a rocket-propelled sled set on railroad tracks with a sophisticated hydraulic braking system that became known as the “Gee Whiz.” Test dummies were initially used to test the effect of g-forces on the human body to assist in designing restraint systems for U.S. pilots in a crash. The project was headed by Colonel John Paul Stapp (MD, PhD), who, after learning of Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier in an early rocket plane with few ill effects, removed the test dummy and instead began testing the rocket sled decelerator by strapping himself into the Gee Whiz’s harness and testing it, to his extreme risk and peril. The g-forces were measured by electronic strain gauges that were attached to Stapp’s harness to measure the forces exerted on them by his sudden braking. These gauges were installed and used pursuant to Murphy’s suggestion and proposal.
Nick T. Spark, in his article “Why Everything You Know about Murphy’s Law Is Wrong” (tinyurl.com/qpes), interviews David Hill Sr., who worked at Edwards on these rocket sled tests and worked with and knew Murphy as the guy who invented Murphy’s Law, describes what happened next as follows:
At one point an Air Force engineer named Captain Ed Murphy came out to Edwards. With him he brought four sensors, called strain gauges, which were intended to improve the accuracy of g-force measurements. The way Hill tells it one of [Murphy’s] assistants . . . installed the gauges on the Gee Whiz’s harness.
Later Stapp made a sled run with the new sensors and they failed to work. It turned out that the gauges had been accidentally installed backwards, producing a zero reading. . . . It was a simple enough mistake, but Hill remembers that “Murphy was kind of miffed off. And that gave rise to his observation: ‘If there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will.’”
. . .
Murphy’s sour comment proceeded to make the rounds at the sled track. . . . The way the fat got chewed, Murphy’s words . . . were transformed into a finer, more demonstrative “if anything can go wrong, it will.” A legend had been hatched. But not yet born.
Just how did the Law get out into the world? Well, David Hill says, John Paul Stapp held his first-ever press conference at Edwards a few weeks after the incident. And he was attempting to explain his research in clinical terms when a reporter asked the obvious question: “How is it that no one has been severely injured—or worse—during your tests?” Stapp, who Hill says could be something of a showman, replied nonchalantly that, “we do all of our work in consideration of Murphy’s Law.” When the puzzled reporters asked for a clarification, Stapp defined the Law and stated, as Hill puts it, “the idea that you had to think through all possibilities before doing a test” so as to avoid disaster.
According to Hill, that was a defining moment. Whether Stapp realized it or not, Murphy’s Law neatly summed up the point of his experiments. They were, after all, dedicated to trying to find ways to prevent bad things—aircraft accidents—from becoming worse. As in fatal. But there was a more significant meaning that went to the very core of the mission of the engineer. From day one of the tests there had been an unacknowledged but standard experimental protocol. The test team constantly challenged each other to think up “what ifs” and to recognize the potential causes of disaster. If you could predict all the possible things that could go wrong, the thinking went, you could also find a way to prevent catastrophe. And save John Stapp’s neck.
If anything can go wrong, it will. It was a concept that seized the cumulative imagination at the press conference. So when articles about the Gee Whiz showed up in print, Murphy’s Law was often cited right along with Newton’s Second.
Murphy, the 5 P’s, and the Boy Scouts
So there you have it. Who knew that Murphy’s Law was not a pejorative or pessimistic phrase, but rather a call for preventive measures—a call to think things through before a task so as to prevent things from going wrong. It is the precursor to my late father’s catchphrase (which I’m sure he “borrowed” from but never attributed to his time in the Marine Corps) that he drilled into me and my four siblings at an early age to always “Practice the 5 P’s”: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. I, in turn, have passed this tidbit of wisdom to my three daughters who have it ingrained into their daily lives. To this day, whether it be at work, with the family, or at life in general, I try to remember to Practice the 5 P’s so as to ensure better results.
Both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts summed up this principle even more succinctly with their two-word motto: “Be Prepared.” Two simple words that can prevent so many bad things from happening. As a former Boy Scout, I strive to live up to this motto. You’d all be wise to heed such a simple concept as it can save much aggravation later.
Even Murphy regarded Stapp’s version as too pessimistic. “My original statement was to warn people to be sure that they cover all the bases, because if you haven’t, you’re in trouble,” he says. “It was never meant to be fatalistic” (tinyurl.com/hj9rv6o).
Of course, the original Murphy’s Law has spawned countless offspring and corollaries, and I will leave you with a few of my favorites:
- The probability of being observed is directly proportional to the stupidity of one’s actions.
- The best golf shots happen when you are alone (and the worst when playing with someone you want to impress).
- The other line always moves faster.