One of my greatest failures in life turned out to be one of my greatest achievements.
It was during my first semester in college, pursuing my love for the ocean and my goal of becoming a Marine Biologist, that I signed up for a course called Ecology. I thought it would be a breeze compared to my other courses; after all, it was just about littering and such, Right? However, on the first day of class, the professor set a high bar by challenging us to pick any living thing and write about its most limiting factor. With that, she left the room, and the class was over before I knew it – an easy course, or so I thought, giving me enough time to hit the surf before my next class.
Back in those days, there was no Internet, and it wouldn’t arrive for another decade and a half. So, I headed to the University Library, where I could do some research. My fascination with seaweed led me to read countless abstracts and books on Phycology – the study of seaweed. One day, I stumbled across a 1976 abstract by Robert Black, titled “The Effects of Grazing by the Limpet Acmaea Insessa on the Kelp Egrecia Laevigata in the Intertidal Zone.” This was it – bingo. I delved deeper into the geology of the substrate where Egrecia grew, and I read abstracts on water chemistry, kelp’s holdfast mechanisms, the average wave surge on the kelp canopy, the current patterns off the Monterey Peninsula, the grazing habits of the limpet, as well as the rate of growth of the giant kelp and its Achilles heel – its holdfast.
I typed up a ten-page abstract using an IBM Selectric and even had to buy my own ink ribbon. At the end of my research, it was clear to me that the major limiting factor of Egrecia laevigata was the Limpet, Acmaea insessa.
Excitedly, I handed in my work, feeling like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” trying to hold back a grin that was worthy of receiving a Nobel Prize.
However, the next class, I received my paper back with an “F” grade and a single word circled in red (Light). It was a blow that felt like it could be heard around the world.
I failed Ecology that semester, but with a smile because it opened a receptor in my brain not used before.
I was determined to retake that course, but unfortunately, the same professor wasn’t teaching it for another year, so I had to wait. Finally, the next year, when she saw me sitting in the front row, she nodded at me with a look that suggested I might be a glutton for punishment. But I was a new person, and I aced the course. I owe much to her for making me pause and think before reaching a conclusion. During that year, I developed a new approach, which I dubbed the Necker Cube Approach – that every problem has at least two correct resolutions, one being more correct than the other based on the objectives surrounding it.
Years later, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by M. Rubenstein titled “The Minding Company,” based on his observations and philosophy that design should be looked at from the end to the beginning. It is the way Apple designs its products as opposed to the way Microsoft does. What hit me was that it was, in a way, the Necker Cube approach.
Since then, I have been applying the Necker Cube approach throughout my career. Sadly, I left the field I loved (Marine Biology) for a much more lucrative one in Computer Science, but witnessed the birth of personal computing and the rise of the internet and beyond.
Despite my career path change, all is not lost., for I blend both careers into my science fiction writing, incorporating the Necker Cube, but in this case, as a quantum gateway to anywhere in the universe.