Failure Is an Option

Where would we be without it?

This story appears in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

At the end of the 19th century a middle-aged Swedish engineer, a patent officer captivated by the promise and possibilities of technology, came up with a radical idea: Why not fly in a hydrogen balloon to become the first to discover the North Pole, then as mysterious and unknown as Mars? For years explorers had attempted to reach the Pole overland; many died trying. An air expedition, Salomon August Andrée reasoned, would eliminate much of the risk. And so, on a windy day in July 1897, with support from Alfred Nobel and Sweden’s king, Andrée and two younger colleagues climbed into the basket of a 67-foot-diameter balloon on Danes Island in the Svalbard archipelago. The team packed wooden sledges, food for several months, carrier pigeons to relay messages, even a tuxedo Andrée hoped to wear at the end of the journey. As journalists and well-wishers cheered and waved, they soared into the air, aiming to float to a place no human had seen.

As soon as they lifted off, wind battered the balloon. Fog froze on it, weighing it down. For 65 and a half hours the Eagle skittered along, sometimes grazing the Arctic Ocean. Thirty-three years later, sealers stumbled across the frozen corpses of Andrée and his crew—along with their cameras and diaries, which revealed that they’d been forced to land on pack ice 298 miles from the North Pole. The three had perished during a grueling three-month trek south.

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. (“Try again. Fail again,” wrote Samuel Beckett. “Fail better.”) 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 endeavor. Climber Alan Hinkes, a member of the small club of mountaineers who’ve summited the world’s highest peaks, has had his share of misfortunes: broken his arm, impaled his leg on a tree branch “like a medieval spear,” sneezed so violently near the top of Pakistan’s 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat that he slipped a disk and had to abort the climb. “I probably should be dead,” he admits. But “I haven’t had any failures. I have had near misses and close shaves.”

Failing Well

How Ernest Shackleton turned his failure to cross Antarctica into success.
(From the September digital edition.)

For most explorers, only one failure really matters: not coming back alive. For the rest of us, such tragic ends can capture the imagination more than success. Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his team after reaching the South Pole in 1912, is hailed as a hero in Britain. Australians are moved by a disastrous 19th-century south-to-north expedition that ended in death for its team leaders. These tales stick with us for the same reason our own failures do: “We remember our failures because we’re still analyzing them,” Ballard says. Success, on the other hand, “is quickly passed.” And too much success can lead to overconfidence—which in turn can lead to failure. During the 1996 Everest season, in which 12 climbers perished, mountaineering experts wrongly “felt they had the mountain wired and pretty well sorted out,” says Athans, who helped head up rescue operations. “In truth, the formulas get you into trouble.” Failure keeps you on your toes.

Scientific researchers are reluctant to own up publicly to flops. Reputations and future funding depend on perceptions of success. But in the past decade, at least half a dozen journals—mostly in medicine and conservation—have solicited reports of failed experiments, studies, and clinical trials. The rationale: “Negative” results can eventually give rise to positive outcomes.

The business world, especially the high-tech realm with its rapid-fire start-ups and burnouts, already understands the value of negative results, if they are low-cost and noncatastrophic. To encourage entrepreneurship, the Netherlands-based ABN AMRO Bank started an Institute of Brilliant Failures. Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical giant, began throwing “R&D-focused outcome celebrations”—failure parties—two decades ago to honor data gleaned from trials for drugs that didn’t work. (Some 90 percent of all such trials fail.) Some foundations have even begun requiring grantees to report failures as well as successes.

Business leaders often seek nuts-and-bolts lessons from failures, but they benefit from bigger-picture truths as well. A Harvard Business School professor was so struck by an iconic, century-old exploration failure that she authored a case study about it—to teach her M.B.A. students about leadership. Historian Nancy Koehn reckons she’s taught the story of Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton at least a hundred times. His 1914-16 expedition to cross Antarctica was doomed when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice. Shackleton’s goal quickly shifted from exploration to ensuring a safe return home for himself and his crew.

“It’s a huge failure from the perspective of exploration, right?” Koehn says. “But it’s inspiring partly because it’s a failure. We’re in an age of corporate malfeasance and companies being called to account and saying, It’s not my fault. But he said, By God, I’m going to clean it up. He owned responsibility for the mess.” Shackleton brought the 27 men on his team safely home. “He was a great crisis manager,” says Koehn. Through him, her students “learn about persistence and resilience, and a lot about small gestures.” Shackleton made sure to give all of his men cups of hot milk if he noticed that even one was flagging.

Persistence. Resilience. Adaptability and crisis management. All are key themes in exploration, as in ordinary life. Keeping things in perspective helps too: Explorers tend to take the long view, recognizing the illusory nature of failure and success. “Treat those two impostors just the same,” Kipling advised in his poem If. “That’s how I feel about it,” says cave explorer Kenny Broad. Many of his colleagues have perished in deep scuba dives in darkness through mazes of caverns. “You can get lucky in a dive. You get lucky a few times and start to think that’s skill. Success and failure in cutting-edge exploration is a very fine line.”

S. A. Andrée’s balloon expedition was cutting-edge for its day, and fail it did, but “you don’t know until you try in aviation,” Urban Wråkberg, a historian of science at Norway’s University of Tromsø, points out. Improved technology ultimately helped solve the problems of Arctic aviation (the first successful flight to the North Pole took place three decades after Andrée’s attempt) and has opened countless other doors. Satellite uplinks, reliable communication, and advances in meteorology and robotic assistance are just a few innovations that have pushed the limits of exploration. But even Ballard, whose major discoveries were aided by robots, notes that technology “doesn’t make everything possible.”

And that’s a good thing. “If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation,” says Athans. “Wanting to exceed your grasp is the nature of the human condition. There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”