“A smooth sea never made a talented mariner” – English proverb
One historical figure who must have appreciated the meaning of isolated insignificance is adventurer Ernest Shackleton. Stranded in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic. Featured as a part of National Geographic’s article “Famous Failures”…
- “Failure—never sought, always dreaded, impossible to ignore—is the specter that hovers over every attempt at exploration. Yet without the sting of failure to spur us to reassess and rethink, progress would be impossible….Today there is growing recognition of the importance of failure. Educators ponder how to make kids more comfortable with it. Business schools teach its lessons. Psychologists study how we cope with it, usually with an eye toward improving the chance of success. Indeed, the very word ‘success’ is derived from the Latin succedere, ‘to come after’ —and what it comes after, yes, is failure. One cannot exist without the other. Oceanographer Robert Ballard, a veteran of 130 undersea expeditions and discoverer of the Titanic, calls this interplay the yin yang of success and failure. Even at their most miserable, failures provide information to help us do things differently next time. “I learned how not to climb the first four times I tried to summit Everest,” says alpinist Pete Athans, who’s reached the world’s highest peak seven times. ‘Failure gives you a chance to refine your approach. You’re taking risks more and more intelligently.’ In his case this meant streamlining his team and choosing less challenging routes for his first successful ascent, in 1990. Failure is also a reminder that luck plays a role in any endeavour.”
Today marks the day when he overcame incalculable odds to return back to South Georgia in a row boat after his ship Endurance had been crushed by Antarctic sea ice epically described in the video above.
World Astronomy Day today is the ideal opportunity to embrace our collective insignificance with a simple glimpse to the heavens. Or if you don’t have one at hand, here are a couple of very handy guided desktop tours the vastness of the universe around us…
- “A Lesson I Perspective. On September 3rd, 2003, the Hubble Space Telescope began pointing its camera at a small area in the night sky. The area, about a tenth the size of the full moon, appeared to be complete blackness with no stars visible to the naked eye…This is what the Hubble saw [see photo above]…from what looked like NOTHING.” – “Proof That We Are Really Insignificant”
- “Justin, as a father of six you have to straighten up, son. Last year, you were ranked the fifth most hated person of all time. Kim Jong-Un didn’t rank that low. And he uses your music to torture people.” – Shaq
Sunday roast for you. Roasts have a long tradition of embracing failure with wit and repartee. Comedy Central has made them a feature presentation in recent years with the latest show being last month’s Justin Beiber skewering. Probably the highest profile one of all is the Washington Correspondents Dinner (also just a few weeks ago) where the “most powerful man in the world” is the subject of ridicule and jabs.
Curiously, despite the barrage of jokes and the roastee’s expense, usually the biggest beneficiary of the whole escapade is the person on the hot seat. Taking the ridicule and abuse with poise and humility inspires respect and empathy for even some of the least loved individuals.
- “I am determined to make the most of every moment I have left. After the midterm elections, my advisers asked me ‘Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?’ I said, ‘Well, I have something rhymes with bucket list.’ Take executive action on immigration? Bucket. New climate regulations? Bucket.” – President Obama
- “We should aim for a good and rich life well lived, and at the end of it, in the comfort of our own home, in the company of those who love us, have a death worth dying for.” – Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett would have been 67 today had he not passed away earlier this year. Not a surprise, but instead quite publicly and audaciously anticipated in his superb Dimbleby Lecture “Terry Pratchett: Shaking Hands With Death”. The lecture itself is an embrace of failure – his failure to even speak consistently for extended periods. That constraint didn’t stop him though as he had actor Tony Robinson read out his prepared speech.
But it was the content of his “speech”, the embrace of the ultimate failure – death – that provides the resonance. Pratchett is no stranger to the character of “Death” who became one of the most popular characters in his Discworld novels (“He is, in short, a kindly death, cleaning up the mess that this life leaves, and opening the gate to the next one. Indeed, in some religions he is an angel.”)
But his words in the lecture were not the fantastical stories of graphic novels, but very real reflections on his real world relationship with this character…
- “When I was a very young newspaper journalist, learning my trade, we used to report on our paper that people have died of a long illness. Everybody knew what it meant. But no one spoke its name out loud. And then when Richard Dimbleby died of cancer in 1965 his family said: that in fact he died of cancer. And this shocked the nation that a Dimbleby was mortal and that they actually used the forbidden word. And somehow I felt that was a marvellous thing because it seemed to me that the war on cancer developed momentum right at that time. Before you can kill a monster, I always say, you have to be prepared to say its name.”
Pratchett goes into a reasoned polemic on the merits of “assisted dying” countering its many objections…
- Manipulation – “elderly people might be illegally persuaded into "asking" for assisted death”: “the idea that people would persuade themselves to die just because some hypothetical Acme One-Stop Death shop has opened down the road is fantastical.”
- Abuse – “vulnerable must be protected”: “tribunal would also serve to prevent, as much as humanly possible, any abuses.”
- Slippery Slope – “open the door to abuses all the way up to the culling of the elderly sick”: “that objection is a bogeyman.”
- Distrust – “people would not trust their doctor if they knew that they had the power to kill them”: “to bring your life to an end is placing the utmost trust in them.”
- Morality – “the God argument”: “that it only works if you believe in god.”
This topic is a recurring one for one of my other favourite writers – Scott Adams – who takes a more militant stand on the issue of assisted dying, especially in his controversial post “I Hope My Father Dies Soon”…
- “If my dad were a cat, we would have put him to sleep long ago. And not once would we have looked back and thought too soon. Because it’s not too soon. It’s far too late. His smallish estate pays about $8,000 per month to keep him in this state of perpetual suffering. Rarely has money been so poorly spent. I’d like to proactively end his suffering and let him go out with some dignity. But my government says I can’t make that decision. Neither can his doctors. So, for all practical purposes, the government is torturing my father until he dies.”
Death is indeed the ultimate failure, and until we as individuals and a society can embrace it’s reality, our wilful avoidance will amplify its inevitable grief and loss with pain and hardship.
Today is a day that has inspired men to rise up against their flaccidity. The drug Viagra was introduced to the market and the male gender had its own pill-driven sexual revolution. All based on a complete product failure as Andrew Hargadon so obliquely describes in his lecture…
- “[Pharmaceutical companies] are spending enormous amounts of money and developing less and less new drugs…In the past three years, no new molecules have come from the big pharma companies…Viagra. It was a drug that original failed in clinical trials for the treatment of angina…and so they had to cancel the trials. But the patients refused to return the samples. So what Pfizer did is they went out and they figured out why. The real trick to pharmaceutical drug development is taking an existing drug, understanding its side effects, and turning those side effects into main effects.”
Failure never felt so good.
- “Not only did Vince Gilligan’s five-season, hyper-violent prose poem to midlife male frustration tie up virtually every loose end in sight, it contained the Holy Grail of all storytelling: an Actual Moment of Truth. And not just this particular story’s truth, but one that extended to the beloved and bloated genre Gilligan both elevated and mocked. ‘I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.’ The strongest moments of the final season came as Walt realised that great truism so often underscored in stories like his: Once you introduce evil into your life, you cannot control it.” – Mary McNamara by LA Times
I always think that this lesson is one of the fundamental problems to what become “terrorist” organisations. Groups with well-intentioned grievances – IRA, PLO, etc – get frustrated by their lack of power and influence and turn to thuggery to enhance both. The problem is that when Good Friday Agreement or Camp David Peace Accords finally achieve some measure of progress, they can’t really put the evil scourge back in the bottle so easily. The devil does not relinquish his Faustian Pact easily.
Kudos to Vince Gilligan for unflinchingly embracing the failures of life to depict a more honest and gripping story, but also to tell a more authentic morality play defining the limits of how far that embrace can and should extend.
Dreams are stories we tell ourselves. These stories get us out of bed in the morning. And today of all days we celebrate those stories on World Storytelling Day.
But I personally adopt a contradictory perspective on stories and dreams. They are essential to our well-being…which is why they should be regularly attacked and even killed. One example is the set of stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. These models are the foundation to us going about our daily life and how all our modern technology works, but the sceptic in me seeks to constantly seek new answers and alternative perspectives. Another example are our “dreams” themselves which I argue repeatedly need to be sunsetted on a regular basis.
One of the best TED talks on storytelling is Tyler Cowen’s “Be suspicious of stories”. An undercurrent of embracing failure pervades the presentation from the title to comments like the following…
- “Probably I was wrong”
- “It’s the people who realize that they don’t know anything at all who end up doing pretty well.”
- “Be a little more messy…be more comfortable about agnostic.”
He asks a powerful question not about stories themselves, but at Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter would say, the ‘un-stories’ – "What are the stories that no one has any incentive to tell?"
For me, one of those themes is “Duality”. The notion that something can be both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ at the same time. The classic, though often misapplied, metaphor for this is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. One of the reasons I enjoy the writer Douglas Hofstadter so much is that he regales in such paradoxes.
Curiously though, this story mode has become an incrasing staple of current day TV hits – Sopranos, Lost, Dexter, Homeland, House of Cards. The “bad guy” as protagonist. Is Walter White doing good or doing wrong?
My favourite “duality” portrayal is the episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” titled “The Can Opener” (below)
And everyone lived happily ever after (or did they?)…