“Failure is not an option.” An immortal, but apocryphal sentence, incorrectly attributed to Gene Kranz, lead flight director for Apollo 13. It’s a sentiment that I personally tend towards: and I am probably not wrong in thinking that a number of us in academia – often driven, high achieving, obsessive individuals – also feel the same.
I’m genuinely terrified of failure. I hate it. When I fail, even in the most minor way, I become convinced that people can see it, trailing after and around me like a noxious fog. It becomes a taint – my guilt is as physical as Lady Macbeth’s, and I feel a need to confess my sins and bend to retribution. I made a mistake this week – a small error in calculation – and panicked. Sent off emails to the relevant parties and sat, chewing my fingers and unable to focus on much else for the rest of the day. When I found out I hadn’t made an error and had to send off another set of emails apologising for the panic, it got worse. My stomach was upset, I felt ill, and I fell into a terrible strop. Calculate twice, email once, might be a good rule of thumb from here on in.
The thing is though, we all fail. Even in the tiniest ways: not cleaning a tea mug properly, forgetting to tidy up like you said you were going to, making a mistake in a recipe. Sometimes we fail in ways which have greater consequences: we do not listen to a friend who needs us, we accidentally offend someone, we make an error at work which has administrative and time consuming repercussions, we invest time and money in something which wasn’t worth it in the first place. Failure happens. So how do we deal with it?
This week, BBC Radio 4 have been broadcasting a series of short fifteen minute programmes on the subject of failure, from a variety of different perspectives. I’ve listened to the four that have already been aired, and I’ll probably listen to the last one today. The general theme of the series has been that it is not failure itself which is the problem, but the fear of failure and the failure to accept it. It has been illuminating in a number of ways, which I will reflect on below.
The fear of failure is very common, but it is not innate. As a small child, I used to jump off the concrete pillars that, standing several feet tall, marked the end of a friend’s driveway. I was not terrified of making a miscalculation and smashing my face into the ground: I simply revelled in the thrill of the leap. It is as we grow older, gain awareness and responsibility for ourselves – and, crucially, for others, that the fear of failure begins to take its hold. We are trained to consistently improve ourselves, to be perfect and to please our superiors and colleagues: failure to do so is bad, and early in our lives we associate it with displeasure and punishment. What others think of us can matter so much: I never like to think of myself as a disappointment.
Perhaps the worst kind of failure, however, is that which other people don’t see. There’s an old adage that if you don’t point out the mistakes, no one will notice: and that can be applied to so many things. But often, the producer of something – an article, a presentation, a conference, sees all the gaps, the holes, is aware of the errors they made and the places they should have worked harder. In the episode of the documentary that dealt with failure in the military, a fighter pilot speaks about his discomfort about being perceived as a hero after being released from an enemy prison. The praise he gets makes his sense of failure – that he failed to fly aircraft, instead crashing and being captured – even more acute. This is a painful kind of failure, because it cannot always be explained to those around you, and sympathy makes it harder to bear.
But there is little learning, little progress, little development without failure. In failure, we can learn about ourselves, our deficiencies. We can also learn about the deficiencies of the system and circumstances in which we exist, and we can strive to make them better. If we are too afraid of failure, we will not take risks, we will not stick our necks out. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved by those willing to take a risk. Werner Forssman was instrumental in the development of cardiac catheterisation: in 1929, against the direct orders of his department and counter to medical belief at the time, he inserted a catheter into a vein in his lower arm, up into his own heart, then walked to the x-ray room to see if he had been successful. He was, and in 1956 he was given the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Forssman’s story shows us that risk is often an essential part of ground breaking success: and with risk always comes the possibility of failure. In most of academia – the humanities and arts in particular – the risks are never so great as the loss of your own life, but you could be putting your intellectual reputation on the line. Yet if we are to be those who strive to further the knowledge, understanding and wonder of living creatures, then we must be prepared to take risks. I genuinely believe that in academia we cannot simply sit and regurgitate old thoughts: we have to push ahead, into and beyond the pale of the intellect and of the cosmos, and report back from there. Otherwise, knowledge stagnates and dies, and we become little more than husks, ghosts repeating the words of our ancestors.
At the Sorbonne in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt made a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic”. Part of it was cited in the radio programme, and I will cite it here for you, because I think it makes the point quite well. The true academic, the thinker, the philosopher, is The Man – The Person – in the Arena.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
*”A Taste of Armageddon” is a first-season episode of the original Star Trek. It was first broadcast on February 23, 1967, written by Robert Hamner and Gene L. Coon, and directed by Joseph Pevney.