Failure Should Always Be an Option

I am a strong believer in the power of story. Studies done by people such as psychologist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell suggest that the old myths and stories contain much important collective psychological information. Imagery and metaphor are powerful ways to connect with people. The old stories were a way of conveying basic human truths through an ancient oral tradition. Stories didn’t begin to be written down until around 3000 years ago.

The old stories were told over and over and over again, generation after generation. Ever notice how young children never tire of hearing the same old stories? Ever notice how old geezers never tire of telling the same old stories? Ever wonder why remembering a story is far easier than recalling a simple fact? Ever notice how much you enjoy watching your same old favorite movies? It’s in our bones.

Though a modern story, one of my favorite movies is Apollo 13. The movie is a unique hero story, one without the usual standout single heroic figure. It is a group hero story. Success in bringing the Apollo capsule back safely depended on multiple individuals and groups, each separately stepping up to do their part to save the lives of three astronauts.

Perhaps the most famous line from the film was spoken by Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by actor Ed Harris):

Failure is not an option.

But failure would have been the case without the dispersed, diverse, and autonomous (though coordinated) efforts by so many people. This is an important point. Failure was minimized in the face of relatively independent action and decision-making. No single act and no single decision were sufficient to bring the capsule safely home.

My second story about failure is an old one, Jack and the Beanstalk, a well-known English fairytale that likely originated around 5000 years ago.

Jack and the Beanstalk begins with failure. Jack is tricked into selling the family cow for “magic beans”. Had Jack’s mother been a participation-award type parent, she might have praised Jack for the trade and placed his beans on the mantle in a special jar labeled magic. But she did what most moms do. She promptly sent Jack off to bed and threw his cherished beans out the window. Jack knew that he had failed.

The important point of this story is that had Jack’s mother not thrown the beans out the window, there would have been no encounter with the giant, no golden-egg-laying-goose, and no magical singing harp. Jack’s world would have been much poorer.

The progressive governing philosophy, which began largely as a response to the rapid disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution, is based on the premise that government can be a tool for positive social change – a noble thing though misguided.

Progressivism was founded on the belief that government services could be made rational, efficient, and less corrupt by having trained independent experts administer government bureaucracies. Commercial entities during the same era followed a similar path. Even today many in government (and even in commercial organizations) continue to believe that a top-down well-designed and well-organized approach will lead to the best outcomes.

Conservatives are not much better. Though they reject the premise that human beings can be improved through political and social change, they believe there is a role for top-down governance to restrain humanity’s baser instincts and to impose discipline, albeit along traditional lines of authority and moral guidance.

Public trust in government following the end of the Great Depression and the winning of the Second World War was exceedingly high. In the early 1960s, around ¾ of poll respondents said that they trusted the federal government to do what is right just about always or most of the time.

The figure is closer to 20% now.

Granted, despite the many failures of government, there have been some successes (I’m obviously neglecting the causal argument that they would have happened even without government intervention). Airline travel is safer than ever. Food safety is high. Government put a man on the moon. Though we’ve been at war almost continuously since World War II, wars now seem so far away and distant that they don’t affect most folks most of the time. Even the crime rate in the US has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s.

The most dramatic recent drop in public trust in government occurred during the 1960s and 70s. This is not all that surprising. That era was marked by: a) the assassination of President Kennedy, his brother, and Martin Luther King Jr., b) the civil rights movement, c) an unpopular Vietnam War, d) Watergate, e) the Arab oil embargo, and f) stagflation. It was a rough couple of decades. Government seemed incapable of addressing the country’s problems.

Public trust increased slightly during the Reagan and Clinton administrations, but fell steadily and never recovered after Sep 11, 2001. Many thought that President Obama could restore trust in government. He was going to give us “Change We Can Believe In”. It didn’t work out so well. And President Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. He’s not off to a very good start.

Why then do we (collectively) hang on to the fantasy that if we just elect the right President things will get better? Supporters of both of our last two Presidents, of course, blame political opposition when things didn’t turn out as planned. But is it realistic to expect political opposition to be something other than opposition?

I suppose both my conservative and progressive friends would postulate that the deterioration in public trust is because we’ve simply not been electing the “right kind” of politicians. This could be true. Things might indeed be better if we had elected better leaders (not just Presidents but Congress as well).

If this is true, though, it’s voters who are to blame. We have the responsibility to elect the “right kind” of leaders. Frankly, it doesn’t look like we’re doing a very good job – or are about to anytime soon.

It’s an unrealistic expectation (born out by experiences here and elsewhere around the world) that democracies will always choose good leaders. People being as they are, during times of stress or widespread dissatisfaction, democracies will often choose duds, perhaps more regularly than not. We must be able to withstand bad leadership and continue to move forward.

Contrary to this point of view, however, I believe that dissatisfaction with government has roots that are far deeper than the usual political explanations. I would suggest contemplating two more fundamental interpretations:

  1. Top-down governing a large complex nation-state such as the US has simply gotten to be too big a job (a topic I’ll address in later blogs).
  2. US voters have a low tolerance for failure.

As I have discussed and will discuss further in later blogs, I believe the solution to both issues is increased bottoms-up and personal (devolved) governance. Apollo 13 was a story that addressed this solution.

The materially rich culture that we enjoy in the West, and particularly in the US, has ever so steadily been beating back failure. Lifespans have increased as we have made progress at conquering disease, childhood and childbirth mortality, and even old age. Unsafe food is a rare occurrence. Crime rates are falling. Pollution has been declining for decades. Our transportation systems are far less prone to failure than previously. Wars can now be fought with fewer and fewer casualties.

We should be pleased with our government, but we’re not.

The American population is on average (neglecting issues around income disparities) the richest population that has ever walked the face of the earth. Rich people have an expectation of safety.

At the same time, though, those of us who pay attention to the news are privy to every single major tragedy that occurs across the US, and for that matter the world. Our exaggerated expectation of safety slams up against the evening news showing us an exaggerated view of how unsafe we are. Failure seems all around us. We don’t want to feel unsafe.

This is despite the many popularized self-help articles and books that point out how important failure is to achieving success. Failure can lead to changes of attitude and direction. Failure means that poor ideas and unprofitable companies fail. Failure leads to re-designs and reconsiderations of ways of doing things. Failure points the way to a better future that often cannot be discerned without it.

I wonder if we’re losing site of the fact that a failure-free world is a poor world. An inventive entrepreneurial world is what provided us with those things that have made us safer. It’s perhaps more than a bit ironic that past failures have been largely responsible for the modern desire for a failure-sparse world.  

If we’re going to continue to have a rich and safe future, I believe we must learn to better tolerate more failure than we do now. Let’s start a discussion about how we might do this. Asking people to be less safe will take some convincing.

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