This week world lost the individual who taught a wider range of humans – from curious tourists to renowned laureates – more about science than just about anyone. One of his best lessons was the embrace of failure integral to the scientific method and the progress of all science. Adam Minter wrote one of my favourite testimonials to Stephen Hawking – “Stephen Hawking Taught Us It Was Right to Be Wrong” – focusing not just on his insight, but his skin-in-the-game, live-ammunition exercises in risk-taking and many times losing…
- “Hawking had placed a very public $100 bet that the Higgs boson — a subatomic particle theorized in the 1960s — would never be found…For Stephen Hawking, who died yesterday at 76, it wasn’t personal. It was just science. For years, he’d been making — and losing — public bets on fundamental questions of physics. He felt no shame in these repudiations, but rather reveled in them, knowing that science advances when its participants are wrong as well as right. His willingness to admit that reality at his own self-deprecating expense is an important part of his legacy as a public intellectual — and a lesson for our polarized times.”
Hawking made bets about black holes presence, black holes behavior, Higg Boson particle, etc. His humility despite his exceptionality notoriety was role model in embracing failure. He even took one for the team in the whimsical game of Quantum Chess versus Paul Rudd (which coincidentally introduces the notion of risk/probability to a very deterministic game) made to publicize and promote interest in science.
- “If Hawking’s life can teach scientists, public intellectuals and social media users anything, it’s that humility and a willingness to change one’s mind isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather of an adventurous and intellectually engaged mind and polity. That’s a legacy as worthy as Hawking’s monumental scientific achievements.”
“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
Susan David gives a superb TED talk “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” about embracing your emotions no matter how “negative” they seem.
- “Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others…Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification… I started to do away with feelings of what I should be experiencing. And instead started to open my heart to what I did feel. Pain. And grief. And loss. And regret… Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions — even the messy, difficult ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness…When you feel a strong, tough emotion, don’t race for the emotional exits. Learn its contours, show up to the journal of your hearts. What is the emotion telling you?”
One of the tricks I learned when I was quite young was assuaging physical pain with mindfulness. Rather than fighting or reacting to it, I actually focused on the discomfort and found that it dissipated much more quickly with mindfulness. Similar to a mediation technique of not rejecting thoughts and sensations that enter your mind during practice, but observing them and letting them go.
Emotions don’t run much more intense than at the peak of athletic achievement. Often a lifetime of dreams brought to a single moment of truth. This past week has been full of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But Olympic champion skier Mikaela Shiffrin eloquently conveys how the emotions are a bit more subtly textured than that. She articulates a brilliant display of embracing even the adverse emotions as part of the rich tapestry of feelings:
- "I’ve gone over it a thousand times in my head, and I don’t think I could have done it differently even if I got a second chance. I keep thinking that maybe if I was able to control my emotions more after the Giant Slalom, I would have had more energy for the Slalom and maybe I could have put more into that race, maybe I would have had better control of my nerves, maybe… But after 5 days of schedule changes and waiting to race, and without the day between those races to reset and recharge, I wasn’t able to manage it. And you know what? I wouldn’t change that for the world. It’s the Olympics, and for me that’s about showing heart and passion as much as it is about medals. So I wouldn’t take back my emotions or excitement after the GS in order to have better shot at a SL medal too. You know, it’s not necessarily the medalists who get the most out of the Olympics. It’s those who are willing to strip down to nothing and bear their soul for their love of the game. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze. We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when the felt both- because we care. That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that.”
Nick Foles, you’ve just won the Super Bowl after a long odyssey to get there. What’s your biggest lesson from it all? Embracing failure.
The Super Bowl titans, the New England Patriots, aren’t the only champions fuelled by failure…
- “I think the big thing is don’t be afraid to fail. In our society today, with Instagram and Twitter, it’s a highlight reel. You know, it’s all the good things. And then, when you look at it, you think, wow. When you have a rough day or your life’s not as good as that, you think you’re failing. You know failure is a part of life. That’s a part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes.
A piece of music that celebrates embracing failure is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s “The Roses of Success”…
- Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you’ll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses! Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success! Oh yes!
Grow the roses! Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
Yes I know but he wants it to float. It will!
For every big mistake you make be grateful! Here, here!
That mistake you’ll never make again! No sir!
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
(Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco! Correct!
It gives you that chance to second guess! Oh yes!
Disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur! No sir!
Edison took years to see the light! Right!
Alexander Graham knew failure well; he took a lot of knocks to ring that bell!
So when it gets distressing it’s a blessing!
Onward and upward you must press! Yes, Yes!
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.
Despite having 78 categories (cut back from 109 in 2012), last night’s Grammy’s still doesn’t have a place for some of the more esoteric music genres and artists. Like “Noise” music described in Wikipedia as follows:
- “Noise music is a category of music that is characterised by the expressive use of noise within a musical context. This type of music tends to challenge the distinction that is made in conventional musical practices between musical and non-musical sound. Noise music includes a wide range of musical styles and sound-based creative practices that feature noise as a primary aspect. Some of the music can feature acoustically or electronically generated noise, and both traditional and unconventional musical instruments. It may incorporate live machine sounds, non-musical vocal techniques, physically manipulated audio media, processed sound recordings, field recording, computer-generated noise, stochastic process, and other randomly produced electronic signals such as distortion, feedback, static, hiss and hum.”
White noise has long been appreciated for its soothing qualities, but sound art and more conceptual music can take the aesthetic qualities even further for noise and static and other sounds often considered acoustic failure (thanks Chase). At least the genre has one celebrity enthusiast (above).
“If I’m going to be paralysed, then I might as well be really good at it.” – Maryn Ashton
Another fine insight on the tragedy of life changing injury and impairment. Martyn Ashton’s TEDxBristol talk (thanks again Ben) “In Disaster There is Opportunity – Finding a Path Through Paralysis” shares an especially bullish perspective.
- “Who would have thought after that accident that my best days of riding bikes were ahead of me? It wasn’t the end of the career. It was just a change in it.”
- “And even though I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do, in that uncertainty came a sense of freedom. I was no longer tied to a set path. I was free to explore life’s infinite possibilities. And that realization was about to change my life.” – Janine Shepherd
Sometimes sporting dreams suffer a literal body blow like the cross-country skier Janine Shepherd who dreamed of competing in the Winter Olympics (which start in just over a week’s time). Instead of flying across the snowy countryside, she revamped her dream to one of flying (more literally and a bit higher) over the countryside. As a pilot. Not just any pilot. But an acrobatic pilot. In fact, an acrobatic flying instructor. (thanks Ben)
- “The philosopher Lao Tzu once said, ‘When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.’ I now know that it wasn’t until I let go of who I thought I was that I was able to create a completely new life. It wasn’t until I let go of the life I thought I should have that I was able to embrace the life that was waiting for me. I now know that my real strength never came from my body, and although my physical capabilities have changed dramatically, who I am is unchanged. The pilot light inside of me was still a light, just as it is in each and every one of us. I know that I’m not my body, and I also know that you’re not yours. And then it no longer matters what you look like, where you come from, or what you do for a living. All that matters is that we continue to fan the flame of humanity by living our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are.”