As I have mentioned before here, I recently started a new job. It’s a career change for me — moving from the practice of law into professional development for law school students — and therefore I am simultaneously thrilled by the opportunity and consumed by the desire to prove myself.
Yesterday our office oversaw an event which brought practicing attorneys and students together over lunch for a little networking and mentoring. It was the first office event that I was responsible for planning and managing. No big deal, really — it’s not like I was planning a wedding — but since it was for me both a test of competence and an introduction to all of our procedural minutiae, I attended to the preparations with particular care.
The event itself was a great success; all the participants gave strong positive feedback, and we immediately began planning similar events for the future. However, shortly before the event started, I found myself trying and ultimately failing to fix an unanticipated computer problem, and although my decision to abandon that planned element of the event was harmless, the subsequent rushing to complete the rest of the preparation for the event led to the fumbling of some other small details. Still, very likely the only people who even noticed the glitches were me . . . and, of course, my boss.
At times like these, it’s hard not to think of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Ironically, Murphy’s Law is self-referential, in a sense. The U.S. Army aerospace engineer credited with coining the concept — Major Edward A. Murphy, Jr. — insisted that he meant it as a helpful planning tool: by assuming always that the worst could happen, and finding appropriate preventative measures or responses, you can design safer and more reliable systems. But in popular culture, the phrase took on an almost-opposite meaning: no matter how well you plan, something bad will always find a way to happen. Murphy was reportedly frustrated that, despite his putatively intended meaning, the interpretation of the phrase had gone awry as it spun into popular culture — that, in effect, Murphy’s Law had applied itself to Murphy’s Law.
Major Murphy, however, might have been disingenuous about the origin of the concept. According to those who worked with him at the time of its coinage, he first articulated it when a project for which he was responsible did not go as planned, and the problem was traced back to a piece of equipment that had been installed incorrectly by a certain technician. Murphy — who himself had had the opportunity to test the equipment after installation, but had declined — deflected all the blame for the failure onto the technician, saying, “If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will.”
So, Murphy’s Law is either a planning tool, a source of ironic comfort in an unreliable world, or an identification of specific subordinates as negligent. Just as, in general, mistakes can be seen as useful lessons, unavoidable potholes in the road of life, or indicators of flawed character. I prefer the first point of view. I’m going to encourage my boss to adopt it, too.