Monday, October 28, 2013

Embracing Failure

I watched some of the World Series this weekend. I like baseball because of the interesting mix of team and individual effort. Every single player has to go to the plate and be the focus of the game, usually multiple times in a game; many plays are handled by a single player on the field; and the pitcher is alone on the mound, hurling pitch after pitch.
What is particularly interesting to me about baseball is the high level of failure that each player must be able to endure. Even a great hitter will fail to get a hit two out of three times at bat. When I watch a man who is famous for slugging balls out of the park swing powerfully and miss, striking out, I wonder, “How can he endure failing so spectacularly and publicly? How does he manage to come to the plate his next at-bat and not have that strike-out affect his mind?”
The pitcher is even more amazing. The spotlight is on him every pitch, and after you’ve walked a runner, how do you come back from that public failure and get the next batter out?
Science is another field that also must embrace failure. Thomas Edison once famously said, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 1,000 ways that don’t work.” In one of my classes in molecular biology I remember the professor discussing an experiment in which an assistant looked through hundreds of petri dishes before she found the one that had the particular mutation the researcher was looking for (one of the reasons I didn’t go into research, I didn’t like the idea of being that young assistant!).

This weekend I also watched the film “Young Frankenstein,” the 1970’s Mel Brooks spoof of the Frankenstein genre. Gene Wilder, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, has attempted to bring his creature to life, and it appears he has failed. Wilder calmly says to his assistants that failure is part of science. Then he starts beating on the creature’s chest bemoaning his fate. From an online transcript:
Frankenstein: No, no. Be of good cheer. If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace. [Beginning to beat on the chest] Son of a bitch bastard, I'll get you for this. What did you do to me? What did you do to me?  
Inga: Doctor. Doctor, stop. You'll kill him. 
Frankenstein: I don't want to live. I do not want to live.  
Igor: Quiet dignity and grace.
This is closer to the way I often deal with failure: a temper tantrum. “It’s the end of the world, this means I’m a failure, useless, not good for anything,” etc. I eventually pick myself up, but it affects my future actions; I either give up on the idea or it takes awhile before I’m back in there slugging. Edison also said, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
A great movie example of failure is "Apollo 13." This is one of my favorite films, and part of the reason is because it portrays people overcoming failure. After some panic and displays of anger, the people on the ground and in space start "working the problem." At one point, Flight Director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, overheard two men behind him worrying about this being NASA's greatest disaster. Harris turns and says, "With all due respect, sir, I think this will be NASA'a finest hour." And it was certainly one of the finest, because no one ran from the failure. They embraced it and went forward.
I think this explains why I like baseball. I like watching people not allowing failure to influence their next moment.

Update: Recently I heard Dr. Cornel West speak in Asheville, and he ended his talk with a quote from Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." 

Quote: "Failure is the key to the kingdom within." Rumi
Footnote about the individual in sports: In other popular team sports the individual counts of course, but from my perspective the focus isn’t so intense on individual effort. In football the quarterback throws to a receiver who catches the ball and runs, but there is an enormous amount of action all around—tackling, faking—that distracts from the main action. That’s why slow-motion replay is such a big part of televised football, it’s important for understanding what just happened on the field. Basketball is very team-oriented; an individual is the one who makes the basket of course but much of a game involves the passing of the ball between players. Same with soccer.

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