Illustration by Carla Wilson
Yesterday, I gathered with family members around our dining room table, its sturdy top laden with homegrown farm fare and heaping plates of Pinterest cookies. For me, the experience was laced through with strange juxtapositions and thematic inconsistencies.
This tabletop—of which I’ve previously written—is a familiar space where I and my immediate family meet for almost every meal in a fairly routine experience. We, the parents, sit quietly as we listen to them, the children, chatter excitedly about superheroes and video games. But when the family table extended its leaves to welcome sisters and in-laws, parents and nieces; when conversation veered toward sports teams and church attendance (topics about which I know infinitely less than caped crusaders and pixelated adventures), I felt the unsettling duality of feeling out of place while seated in my own home.
But what I really want to talk about is something my brother-in-law told me while we stood by the dinner table. I can’t remember exactly how talk veered toward this particular topic, but he, an old acquaintance with a full beard and job at a library with no books, told me how, in the cafeteria of the school where his son, my nephew, attends middle school, a collection of banal quotations peppers the wall—platitudes hung with ticky tack for students to passively absorb without notice. My brother-in-law noticed, however, and recounted one specific quotation that stuck in his craw, as it now sticks in mine: “Failure is not an option.”
First, some history on this quote. Though it feels like a truism written in our genetic code by multi-generational repetition, the line actually dates to the 1995 Hollywood blockbuster film, “Apollo 13.” While the movie recounts actual events, this particular bit of dialogue was the result of a screenwriter’s time at a computer, a piece of cinematic punch on par with “may the force be with you” or “you had me at hello.” However, in an instance of simulacrum that feels less surprising than it should be, Gene Kranz, the real-life NASA Flight Director whose big-screen variant uttered the line, appropriated the statement for the title of his memoir, which itself inspired a History Channel television series. So...
Now, for Gene Krantz, whose job performance had a direct impact on the lives—actual lives—of people floating in space and really hoping to get back to their earthbound families, failure in that most crucial of moments didn’t have a place at the table. However, for the scores of astronautic scientists whose decades of study, experimentation and trial-and-error led to humans escaping the atmosphere to swim in the inky ether of space, failure was not only an option, but an absolute reality. Anybody with the dimmest understanding of the scientific process understands that failure is an indispensable propellant to ingenuity and massive breakthroughs.
Another major scientific figure requiring minimal education for recognition is Albert Einstein. For all the German physicist’s genius and inestimable discoveries underlying the framework of modern scientific thought, most people don’t know society came close to never knowing the man and his universe-defining theories. While Einstein introduced the General Theory of Relativity in 1915, shattering Newtonian law and opening up whole new fields of study, in truth the paper was a reworking of a 1913 publication, one that contained a fatal flaw in the calculations. The 1913 paper was, in terms of proving the theory of relativity, a failure, but the world at large didn’t realize this at the time—in fact, nobody paid much attention to Einstein at all in 1913, as early skirmishes in what was to become World War I transfixed the public. Einstein was able to quietly retract the paper and rework it to remedy the miscalculations, and when he finally found the functioning equations in November 1915, the discovery was untainted by previous failure. Many believe, however, that had the right person noticed in 1913, Einstein’s flub would have cost him his clout and undermined acceptance of his 1915 findings. Our intolerance of failure very well could have ruined space-time for us—no “Star Trek,” no “Doctor Who,” no “Interstellar.”
It should be noted, though, that Einstein did not, as popularly believed, fail high school. He was, in fact, a notably capable student.
A world in which failure isn’t an option is a world where chances are never taken, opportunities never explored. A world without failure is one where new doesn’t exist and standard reigns supreme. Failure looms as a possibility over every encounter with the unfamiliar, and denying room for an unsuccessful experience in effect negates the possibility of ever learning anything. And this, on the wall of a public middle school.
I’m sure whoever put this un-inspirational quote on the cafeteria’s cinderblock wall didn’t intend to dissuade learning. I don’t think it’s cynical to assume it was an admonishment for students not to fail their state-mandated tests, either. But I do believe tacit acceptance of this phrase as something worth posting is symptomatic of a greater problem in society, a focus on success potential as a barometer for evaluating experiences. The concept of a hard-won success, an eventual victory after countless failures, requires patience and an ability to take the long-view of life’s journey. As I see it, our culture obsesses over every footstep, often choosing to stand still or even step backward rather than take an uncertain step forward into uncertainty. If failure’s not an option, neither is progress.
The Internet is filled with articles and blogs on failure, often laid out in numbered lists of how to handle and/or learn from it. My advice is simpler: Fail. You need to, we need to. Sometimes it’s the only option.
/ Rodney Wilson is either a pig farmer who writes or a writer who farms pigs. Either way, he’s got a freezer full of bacon and a finished manuscript, and he’s trying to sell both.