Marshmallows and the Cure for Everything

Test and learn

Now I’m married with daughters I don’t go out that often. Nightclubs and cinemas are a thing of the past (unless it is to watch Frozen… 4 times and counting). An evening in front of the TV is a treat.

I sat down last night to watch a re-run of House.  It was the first episode I have ever seen.  What a fantastic plot. Dr House, the rogue physician who cures the patients nobody else can.

Ideally, what Dr. House should do (as every self-respecting physician knows) is :

  1. Look at the patient’s symptoms
  2. Diagnose their condition
  3. Prescribe a remedy

But that is dull T.V.   Dr. House had a case that nobody else could solve so his approach had to be a little more flamboyant.

The cure for everything

House had no idea what was wrong with the patient so he guessed and prescribed some medication.   Then he stood back to see what happened. His logic was simple — nobody else knew what the problem was so he might as well have a go and see what he could find out.  After all, the patient was dying anyway.

Of course his first guess didn’t work but Dr. House verges on genius. After a couple more false starts he saw how the patient responded, evaluated the evidence and diagnosed the problem.

Mercifully the patient survived.

Dr House tests and learns his way out of problems — at least that’s what happened in the episode I watched.

Test and learn doesn’t just work on T.V.

Below is a video that I urge you to watch.  It is better than prime time TV.

Tom Wujec shows how test and learn works in the real world. He runs a competition to see who can build the tallest tower out of spaghetti and marshmallows.

What he discovered is that competitors fall into two camps.

  • Some analyse, plan, allocate roles and responsibilities, debate alternatives…
  • Others pick up the spaghetti and marshmallows and crack on

He shows that those who make a start, see what happens and then refine their approach as they go, do far better than those who plan and analyse ad infinitum.

The moral of both stories

Next time you have a nasty problem to fix, don’t spend endless hours analysing and planning. Run a trial. Minimise the downside, then take your best shot, fail fast, and learn.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take ~ Wayne Gretzky

P.S.  The other thing I learnt is that if you must contract a deadly disease pick one that everybody already knows about. Experimentation is good, but it is better if you are not on the receiving end.

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Image by jennifer rouse


  1. James,

    This just reiterates that we can always learn a lot from our kids.


  2. Ian Arbuthnott says:


    Great blog – experimentation can be a good way to get there much faster! We all know that for most people, great learning comes from making mistakes, but minimising the downside if it’s a medical problem (or involves electricity or gas) is sound advice!


  3. Great example, James.
    Really glad to hear that the pasta wasn’t cooked


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