Yesterday, I offered a few thoughts on “I, Pencil” and related projects with a link to Thomas Thwaites’ “Toaster Project” TED Talk. In evaluating students’ essays on this, I was struck by how many people wrote that Thwaites “succeeded” in making a toaster. Many students pointed out (correctly) that Thwaites didn’t really build the toaster from scratch because he bought a lot of materials, rode on trains he didn’t build to get some of his raw materials, and ultimately used a microwave in his makeshift smelting process. He finished with something that worked for about five seconds before it stopped.

This was an incredible undertaking, and it’s a fascinating video. However, I think it’s a mistake to say that Thwaites “succeeded” in making a toaster. Why? Because I think people are asking the wrong question.

If we’re building a toaster, the right question isn’t “does this look like a toaster?” It’s not “does this contain the same elements as a toaster?” It’s not even “does this conduct electricity and turn on in some sense?”

The right question is “did it toast?” In Thwaites’s case, the answer was “no.”

In addition to being a great complement to Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil,” I think the Toaster Project helps illustrate a few additional and important points. First, labor doesn’t produce value. Value encourages labor. That Thwaites worked hard doesn’t mean he produced anything useful.

Second, I think we have a tendency to redefine success, sometimes without knowing it. We’re sometimes like the marksman who fired and then drew the bullseye around where his bullet struck. As an art project, Thwaites’s Toaster Project was a smashing success, and our world is much richer for it. He made it much farther than most people would, to be sure. If the goal was to toast bread–and yes, I realize that wasn’t actually the goal–it could only be considered a failure.