Overcoming failure critical for success

When the New York Giants lost to the New England Patriots late in the 2007 season, they realized that they had bitten off more than they could chew. Filled with doubt and lacking focus, they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following week, ending their playoff bid for the season.

After taking a beating at Pearl Harbor, including eight battleships sunk or damaged, a despondent America negotiated a peace treaty with the Japanese Empire. They handed over dominion of the Pacific Ocean and chose not to enter the war even after Britain fell to the Nazis.

Thomas Edison decided to develop a new electric light bulb. He took a few weeks to assemble a very clever prototype, but it burned out immediately upon testing. Disheartened, Edison gave up invention and instead turned to a career of selling elixirs for a traveling show.

Obviously, these headlines never happened. The Giants bounced back from defeat determined to learn from their mistakes and, despite being underdogs, eventually won Superbowl XLII. The attack on Pearl Harbor rallied America into global action, greatly contributing to the defeat of the Axis Powers. Edison failed more than 2,000 times before finally discovering an efficient filament for the electric light.

Everyone fails. Anything worth doing comes with an element of risk. This risk becomes a sense of satisfaction when you achieve success. Think of how great it feels to pull off something that you have been told is impossible. Small risks offer small rewards, but the great risks often result in greater rewards.

Buzz Aldrin wrote about the risks of the Apollo moon landings in a column that appeared in the New York Times. Some scientists feared the moon might not be solid enough to take off from or that odd lunar density might play havoc with trajectories. A very minor trajectory error would mean that the capsule couldn’t return. Any problems on the lunar surface would have to be solved quickly since the lander only had 24 hours of spare oxygen. The capsule could capsize and sink in the ocean after splashdown. No one knew what would happen. The astronauts faced these tremendous risks and returned to historic glory and an immeasurable sense of personal satisfaction.

The CEO of Charles Schwab, David Pottruck, finds stupid failure unacceptable, but encourages noble failure. By his definition, noble failure happens if you implemented a thoughtful and disciplined venture with built-in contingency plans, but still didn’t succeed. According to him, failure must be a learning experience: “When celebration of noble failure becomes institutionalized, people within the organization are more willing to reassess earlier decisions” and lead the company to be smarter in the future.

In our own lives, we take risks every day. Maybe you attend a class that pushes your abilities to the limit. A gymnast risks stumbling on every attempt, a dancer could fall or an actor could forget her lines. Possibly the greatest personal risk you can take is in loving someone, exposing yourself to the possibility of great pain.

Maybe your GPA takes a hit or you find the subject just too much for you. Perhaps the gymnast falls and injures herself. The actress gets laughed offstage. The dancer takes an ugly spill. The lover gets wounded by the one who could hurt him the most. Those outcomes are very possible, but that’s not the point.

You must focus on the goal and learn from all your failures, striving to improve every time and come back with greater focus and determination. You learn from the pain and the hardship to build a better you for the next time. Then, when you pass that class, not only will you have new knowledge and insight, but you also grow in the confidence of what you can achieve. The athlete uses a different approach and wins the day. The performer with a thicker skin can push past a minor error for a curtain call drowned in ovations. The lover, wiser now, loves again and builds a stronger relationship with someone new.

As Theodore Roosevelt stated in his “Strenuous Life” essays: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Sometimes you’ve got to get knocked down to get up.

Jason Olivero is majoring in electrical engineering.