“Find a way or make one,” said the explorer, peering over Arctic ice on his third try to reach the North Pole, in 1909. He said he succeeded that year—a claim disputed by some.

ADMIRAL ROBERT E. PEARY

“Find a way or make one,” said the explorer, peering over Arctic ice on his third try to reach the North Pole, in 1909. He said he succeeded that year—a claim disputed by some.
Photograph courtesy Robert E. Peary, Nat Geo Image Collection

Failure Is an Option

Where would we be without it?

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.

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