Ever hear of Murphy’s Law? “If anything can go wrong, it will.” It seems kind of depressing, but was it meant to be? Maybe over time, Murphy’s words were reframed into something negative, rather than the source of inspiration they were meant to be.
The Origin of Murphy’s Law
“Murphy’s Law” made its debut at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949. Capt. Edward A Murphy was an engineer tasked to a special Air Force project known as Project MX981. The purpose was to discover how much sudden deceleration a person can withstand during a crash.
Around this same time, Chuck Yaeger broke the sound barrier. These were heady days for scientific research, especially related to flight and speed.
Now, to discover how much pressure a person can stand during deceleration from great speeds, that person first must accelerate to great speeds. MX981 researchers were working on this by strapping humans to rocket-propelled platforms, known as a rocket sled. John Paul Stapp was the preferred guinea pig for these experiments.
Capt. Murphy arrived at Edwards AFB in the late 40s. The story has a few different versions as to what exactly happened. According to the notes from an interview conducted by Nick T. Spark, a documentarian who interviewed witnesses from that time, it appears that Murphy arrived to deliver new gauges for the human rocket machine. The gauges malfunctioned. Capt. Murphy is remembered as being annoyed by the failure, grumbling,” if there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will.”
Stapp, the human subject, is credited with turning Murphy’s complaint into “Murphy’s Law.” When he was asked about the high degree of danger involved with their research, he responded by saying that the team was guided by Murphy’s law.
But Stapp explained that Murphy’s Law served as motivation for the scientists and engineers to excel, not as an expectation of failure. According to Stapp, Murphy meant that every possible scenario needs to be envisioned. And, a plan must be developed to avoid catastrophe.
A Call to Excellence
Murphy’s Law was a call to excellence. It was meant to be motivating, not defeating.
Taking Murphy’s words as a call to action, the MX981 experiments more than met their goals, resulting in ground-breaking research that improved road and air safety.
An important difference in interpretation of Murphy’s Law gave the engineers the positivity they needed—not that everything will go wrong, but that it could go wrong.
What a difference these two words make in our psyche: “will” and “could.”
Planning for Possibilities is Healthy
Planning for the possibilities of failure is not defeatist. It’s a healthy way to envision all the potential bumps that “could” arise on the pathway to our dreams.
When launching a new business, service, or product, we always do an analysis of our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). It seems to me this is Murphy’s Law in action. We don’t envision or expect failure. We don’t expect everything to go wrong. We plan to succeed. But we know that every setback is just a step forward toward achieving our goals.
Murphy’s Law as it was meant to be.