No risk, no reward. It’s a common enough expression, albeit one generally ignored in both business and life in favour of risk-averse stability, to the detriment of both success and satisfaction.
The Strangest Secret
Earl Nightingale was an American radio personality, speaker, and author known for his motivational works. His 1956 spoken word record, The Strangest Secret, sold more than a million copies, making it the first spoken-word recording to achieve Gold Record status . However, it is another of his records that is the focus of this piece . In this record, on the topic of the value of risk, he argues that risk-taking is not only a profoundly necessary endeavour for anyone hoping to get ahead, but also, paradoxically, not that risky – if done right.
It’s a message as relevant today as it was then.
Risk is any action or decision that carries an element of uncertainty, with both potential gains and losses. In business, it encompasses everything from launching a new product in uncharted markets to making significant financial investments.
Nightingale is quick to point out that there is a big difference between taking a calculated risk and a more abstract one. The former is “the man who risks all of his time on a goal he wants to reach, on a dream in his heart, who stakes his livelihood and the livelihood of his family upon his own brains and the proper use of his time and tackles the world single-handed. Here’s the risk-taker, to whom the spoils will generally accrue.” The latter is “the impractical dreamer and stargazer.”
He posits that the vast majority of people in the world are not risk takers. According to data of the time, “98% of men in the country are looking for security in their work. That is, they’re mainly interested in losing themselves deep in the warm, nourishing viscera of some large corporation.” (It should be noted that his recording was made at a time when men made up the majority of the workforce, but that his points hold relevance for all genders, in and out of the workplace.)
While he has no problem with those who choose to prioritise security, he notes that there are many benefits afforded to the risk-taker above such people, whether that risk-taker ultimately ends up succeeding or not.
The risk-taker, crucially, must think. Meanwhile “the man with the good steady job who’s familiar with his work and surroundings can go along pretty well from day to day without doing any creative thinking at all.” Such workers, whom Nightingale refers to as the play-it-safers, don’t need to do any more than they have to do. They are masters at getting by. Steady, secure, and ultimately unchallenged.
Meanwhile, for the risk-takers, forced to spend their time thinking, other doors open. Because anyone who spends a great deal of their time thinking “is going to come up with a good idea once in a while. The law of averages is on his side.” And all it takes is one good idea to succeed.
The risk paradox
The paradox at the centre of Nightingale’s argument is that risk-taking, if done properly, in other words by dedicating oneself wholeheartedly to a craft or idea and putting the work in, is far more likely to make one successful than playing it safe. Strange as it may sound, risk-taking is not that risky.
Part of the reason risk-takers have a surprisingly strong likelihood of success is that they are a rare breed. At the time of his recording, they made up 2% of the population – “and since [the risk-taker is] generally working on an idea that will in some way serve the big 98%, the odds swing rather favourably to his side.”
The role of failure
Why is it that risk-takers are such rarities? Well, because “anytime you attempt anything in which you risk failure, you run the risk of having people laugh at you.” Nightingale gives the example of Alexander Graham Bell, who was ridiculed all across New England while trying to gain investment for his grand idea – a device that let the human voice travel down a wire. He was mocked, then mocked some more, until eventually his idea worked, at which point he went from being the town laughing stock to a seismic historical figure who expanded the scope of human communication forever.
A more recent example would be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s now infamous appearance White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word in 2009, at which he performed a song from a new musical he was writing – a historical hip-hop number about one of the US founding fathers. He was met with laughter from some of the most powerful figures in the country, including then-President Barack Obama. Hamilton went on to become an unprecedented worldwide hit and somewhere along the line the joke stopped being funny.
Fear of being ridiculed holds us back. No one wants to look stupid, so we draw within the lines, unwilling to discover what we could do with a blank page. “Millions of people laughing in derision could not hurt us an iota, but we stand in mortal terror of it,” Nightingale says. “Men and women who can prove themselves heroes in great crises tremble before derision.”
In order to succeed, one must push past the laughter, as Bell and Miranda did. They must have faith in their ability and their idea, regardless of what others think. “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Nightingale continues. “We tend to forget that the greatest people, the greatest writers, the greatest teachers were, for the most part, in violent disagreement with their times and the way things were being done.” Failure is all but guaranteed in any walk of life. Risk-takers realise there’s nothing wrong with that. They don’t take it personally and they don’t let it hold them back. Play-it-safers see failure as the end of the world, and “it has cost much…sometimes the price of a laugh has meant the slamming of a door of fame and fortune or even immortality.”
Don’t look before you leap
Nightingale rails against what he refers to as the “winner in the useless information department”, the advice to “look before you leap.” This advice, he says, “is a good recommendation for swimmers and jumpers but as far as life is concerned it’s impossible to do. We can look backward. We can see the results of our past actions and learn from them but we can’t look into the future.”
We can’t know what will happen. We can’t “look”. As such, many choose not to leap at all – and another door closes.
Nightingale states that there are two vital criteria for any “leap”. (1) It should be towards something we want with all our heart. (2) It should be in a field in which we have a good background of experience or at least in an area related to our past experience.
This correlates with his earlier assertion regarding dreamers and stargazers, and the lack of risk in risk. Risk, as he recommends it, is not risky precisely because of these determining factors. One is operating in a field in which they have a genuine understanding and they are applying themselves fully within it. He makes the comparison with a successful group of wartime pilots known as “aces”, thought of as fearless daredevils. They took enormous risks in battle but survived. But while these pilots were certainly offensive in battle, they were not reckless. Nightingale notes that, in fact, they tended to be meticulous about the state of their aircraft and their preparation. They took risks when they needed to because they thought it would give them an advantage. There is an enormous gulf between such an approach and that of a kamikaze.
When to risk?
For those fighter pilots, it was fairly obvious when risk was required: they were up in the air with enemy squadrons approaching; something had to give. In life, things tend to be less straightforward.
Let’s say you’re working a normal 9-5 while starting your own business on the side. How do you know when to commit to the new venture full-time?
Or perhaps you’re pitching a new client. You want them to work with your agency and you have a safe approach to fall back on, something tried and tested, but you also think that pitch has grown a little stale, especially for this slightly more out of the box client. You have an idea for something more left-field, more colourful, that will make you stand out from the competition, but could also make you look a fool. Which way do you go?
Nightingale’s advice for incorporating risk is as follows. “When a situation comes along that involves risk and you don’t know whether to go ahead or hold back, reassess your goals. What are you trying to accomplish? What are you working toward? Will taking this risk, if it works out successfully, help you towards your goals?” If the answer is yes, give it a go.
It could go wrong, of course. You could fail, be met with laughter and derision. But a lot of eventual success stories start that way.
More on Failure
You’re Not Perfect, So Stop Trying To Be
Bouncing Back from Professional Failure
It’s the sliding doors moment you look back on and think, “what if?” Or it could be less definitive. Rather than an obvious fork in the road where you chose to go one way not the other, it might just be a more generalised sense of dissatisfaction, that lingering feeling that in another life things might have gone a different way. It’s regret, and for many people it’s unavoidable – in life and in work.
A Harvard Business Review study1 of more than 300 US-based workers and their colleagues found that just 6% of those surveyed reported never or almost never thinking about other professional paths they could have taken. 21% reported pondering other paths often or almost always. In other words, professional regret is ubiquitous. And, unsurprisingly, it can have a negative effect.
The aforementioned study also found – through self-evaluations and input from colleagues – that “workers who felt somewhat stuck in the past were more likely to be distracted and to daydream while at work, took more breaks and days off, were less engaged with their colleagues, and were more likely to search for other jobs.” It’s not necessarily that these people weren’t happy with their current lives; in fact, many of them reported that they were. But contentment with what you have doesn’t necessarily preclude one from having dreams of what might have been.
The age of dissatisfaction
Experiencing regret is natural. There’s a reason this year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars (Everything Everywhere All At Once2) as well as modern culture’s monolithic blockbuster franchise (the Marvel Cinematic Universe) are both focused on the theory of the multiverse – other dimensions in which the films’ protagonists can interact with different iterations of themselves and witness how their lives would have turned out if they hadn’t done X or had done Y. Audiences connect because it chimes with their own internal questioning. What if I’d kept up the painting? What if I’d married the blonde? What if I’d had the confidence to really pursue my dream? We could ponder forever on the endless lives we might have lived and the better people we could have been. Except it gets us nowhere.
The concept of professional regret is nothing new, but aspects of modern culture serve to exacerbate the problem. The world has simultaneously got bigger and smaller. Bigger, in that the professional options available to people now are wide-ranging in a way it would have been impossible for our ancestors to imagine. A few centuries ago, your career was predetermined. It was what your family did and had time for time eternal (if you were a man, that is; if you were a woman it was unlikely you’d be allowed a career at all.) Diverging from this path was rare. In the modern worksphere, however, not only are the occupants more diverse but the jobs themselves are too. Children are raised under the clichéd auspice that they can be anything they want to be. The benefits are obvious, with even the most niche of interests often catered for in the professional market, provided you know where to look. But the downsides are becoming increasingly apparent too. Choice overload is stifling and leaves people feeling trapped. If you’re a student with a broad range of interests, how do you know if you want to pursue photography or science, move into politics, start your own business or pack it all in to open a beach bar in Tulum? Being able to do everything makes it increasingly easy to do nothing.
The world is getting smaller in that it’s more connected. Digitalization of the social and professional spheres have led to work and social practices that are sometimes unrecognisable compared with even relatively recent history. Practices of the 1990s are starting to earn their stripes as relics of a previous century.
Social media has had the most obvious impact – on professional regret, especially. Being able to witness the lives of celebrities or successful friends play out in real time on your phone is the masochist’s lifeblood. It is the actualisation of how you tell yourself the other half lives. From the discomfort of your sofa, you get to compare your reality to other people’s highlight reels, and tell yourself that if you’d played your cards right, it could, instead, have been you in the newsfeed, boasting to the jealous masses or cashing some indiscreet check for that sweet #Ad money. Social media and choice overload, paired with more the traditional shackles of work-life balance, financial considerations and good old-fashioned imposter syndrome, have led to a collective malaise, where even relative high-flyers spend their days obsessing over the lives of those one rung higher on the ladder and bemoaning their own shortcomings. Marlon Brando’s iconic words of defeat from On the Waterfront3 now pour from the lips of each and every middle-management yuppie and should-have-been-a-singer CEO across the land: “I could’ve been somebody.”
It won’t surprise you to learn that dedicating your actual life to lamenting an imaginary one is not a recommended route to happiness or success. But given our propensity to yearn for greener grass, how do we better manage such thoughts so that we’re not derailed by them, or indeed are able to channel them into something useful?
Managing existing regret
There are a variety of techniques you can use to counteract professional regret. Some involve processing the thoughts in a different way, such as through mindfulness – accepting that the thoughts are thoughts and nothing more, and returning to the present before you spiral off and tumble down the rabbit hole. Alternatively, you could shift your perspective, adopting a more positive approach. Our thought patterns are not fixed; our brains can be trained and altered until we’re able to wield them more effectively. Try reframing negative ideas, such as replacing “should haves” with positive “what ifs”4. Rather than hitting the brick wall of “I should have never chosen this career”, you can say “what if I chose this because I was once passionate about it and I simply need to relocate what it was that drew me here in the first place?” Or “what if I took the skills I’ve gathered in this role and applied them to something I’m more invested in?” There are endless options, but turning dead end negatives into positives that offer options is a good place to start.
Another useful solution is crafting5. Crafting involves adapting your work role based on your existing skills and passions. In other words, rather than leaving your job for some other career that might suit your skillsets, adjust your role so that you’re utilising the many facets you bring to the table. Are you a budding writer stuck in a job that’s pure numbers? Offer to write a regular blog for your company. Are you a people person whose only interactions are with computers? Ask if you can get involved in client calls or join internal meetings. If you have something to offer, it will quickly become apparent, and you’ll not only feel more valued but like you’re being properly utilised rather than hiding your light under a bushel.
If you’re in a management position, it’s important to be on the lookout for hidden skills your team might possess. Maybe you’re looking to make an in-house corporate video and discover that rather than hiring a third party agency for twice the price, you have a co-worker who has spent his weekends shooting and editing short films for years and is looking to make more use of these skills in his day-to-day life. You never know what other lives lurk beneath your colleagues’ corporate veneers.
Mitigating future regret
Forbes6 cites a study from the journal Emotion7 which found that humans are most inclined to regret things associated with opportunities. Meanwhile a separate study8 found that 78% of people wish they’d taken more career risks. If you’re in the fortunate position now where you’ve been offered a grand opportunity and are considering taking a big leap but have trepidation, it’s worth thinking about your future self. Are you the type to spend the rest of your life wondering what might have been if you’d accepted? If so, wouldn’t it be worth finding out, or at least exploring the option thoroughly so that, should you turn it down, you can take comfort in knowing that you gave it due consideration? Trying something new is a scary prospect. But weighed against the possibility of a lifetime of regret, its fangs might lose a bit of their bite.
Which is not to say, of course, that the risk will pay off or that there won’t also be the other regret – what if I’d stayed? But even if it all goes wrong, rather than dwelling on what could have been, focus on what you can do now. Get up, dust yourself down, and go again. The Japanese have a name for this level of resilience: Nana korobi ya ok9i. It translates to “seven falls, eight getting up.” It’s the old Rocky Balboa motivational treatise: “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”10 If it’s good enough for Sylvester Stallone…
If your professional regret boils down to the fact that you really are in the wrong career, it can be tempting to start thinking that it’s all too late, especially if you are of an older generation, but that simply isn’t true. Experience is experience, even if it’s in a different field, and many of the traits we associate with getting older – caring less of what others think, having a better idea of your own mind and less fear of failure – are all positives.
Don’t fret about regret
Professional regret is commonplace. It’s human nature to ruminate on the roads not taken and the advent of social media has only served to pour fuel on an already raging fire. With the right perspective, however, and through crafting and personalising existing work habits, it’s possible to make your current role more satisfying and temper some of those multiversal ponderings. If you’re truly dissatisfied, it’s never too late to make changes. But first, give a fair assessment to your reality. You may come to find that the real grass beneath your feet is greener than you thought, and certainly offers a more solid standing than its fictional counterpart on the other side.7
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill.
In December, the world watched footballers have their hopes shattered, dreams dashed, and chances of glory snatched away, all on the most public of stages. The World Cup comes around only once every four years. It is the sport’s grand prize, the white whale for players, coaches, and fans alike. But for all but one team in the tournament, failure is inevitable. And though the stakes and the public nature of that failure may be unique to elite sportspeople, professional disappointments more generally are not.
Failure is one of life’s great levellers, crossing boundaries of nationality, class, gender, and identity, landing at everyone’s feet eventually, often many times over. The question, then, is not if we will fail, but how we will react when we inevitably do. For footballers, the course is already chartered. They left Qatar and returned to their domestic leagues, where they have had the chance to lick their wounds with a stellar back half of the season. These seasons will reset again in the summer, providing a blank new page on which they can start to write over the disappointment of this tournament’s already fading ink. Those of a ripe enough age will even have another chance at World Cup glory in four years’ time.
But what about those in other careers, whose path is less obvious, who don’t have clear markers or institutionally mandated resets? How can we use professional failure as a tool for learning, a way to grow resilience and add weapons to our arsenal, rather than letting it hold us back, dragging it around forever like a weight around the ankle?
Have you failed?
In his book In Praise of Failure: The Value of Overcoming Mistakes in Sports and in Life1, author Mark H. Anshel notes that, “We often misuse the word failure, especially in achievement settings.” In a work context, our idea of failure is more often based on our own internal expectations than anything tangible: the promotion we felt we deserved but didn’t get; the raise that wasn’t as substantial as we had hoped; the client feedback that wasn’t as glowing as we expected.
When assessing such moments, it’s important to have some perspective. It’s impossible to shake off our subjective lenses entirely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to step back and assess our situation with as much objectivity as we are capable of. Is what’s happened to us a genuine failure or simply a result of external life not living up to our internal narratives? Is what you’re experiencing truly a failure or simply a setback? Pursuing these questions, Anshel concludes that we often ascribe the term failure to undeserving events. “What is often called failure consists of not meeting goals or expectations, or not achieving perfection.”
Perfect is the enemy of good
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, has waged a war on perfectionism, seeing it as the enemy of creativity and productivity, not to mention satisfaction. “Nothing is less efficient than perfectionism,”2 she says. “Done is better than good.” When looking at your own professional disappointment, it’s worth asking yourself whether perfectionism is the true root of your perceived failure. Striving for excellence is all well and good, but perspective is vital. To function at any decent level consistently requires an understanding that all things cannot be well at all times, and that the moments in which we fall short of our own or others’ standards are opportunities for learning. Assess your supposed failures by fair standards, not those of your inner perfectionist, and see if it doesn’t give you some perspective.
But what if you have failed?
Sometimes, of course, we do fail. It’s not about perspective or overly high standards, we just actually made a mistake that had consequences or invested our time and energy in the wrong idea or project. Maybe we lost the company we work for money. Maybe we lost our own company money, or even worse, our company went under. Or maybe whatever company you work for decided they were better off without you and decided to let you go. Any of these things, it would be fair to say, are failures. They also happen all the time, to people at every axis of the talent and success spectrum. So how do we learn from them?
In an article3 in Forbes, sixteen leading businesspeople offered various solutions. The general consensus was that reflection, analysis, acceptance, and a willingness to move onto the next goal were of paramount importance. Chuck Hengel of Marketing Architects recommended, “sitting in the failure just long enough to learn from it.” Jason Van Camp from Mission Six Zero meanwhile advises, “Be willing to try, fail, and try again and again. Failure is fertilizer, and fertilizer is what you need to grow to your full potential…If you don’t have any regrets, you aren’t trying hard enough.”
These are wise words, but it can be easy to dismiss wise words when in a lull. They can seem too engineered, too Hallmark, helpful in the abstract but painfully inadequate in practice. Except, the numbers back them up.
Failing as a numbers game
In their book Building Resiliency: How to Thrive in Times of Change4, Mary Lynn Pulley and Michael Wakefield observe that in a 1984 study on the “key events” that contributed to leaders’ development, 20% of respondents “said they learned significant lessons from hardship, such as job loss, career setbacks, mistakes and failures, or personal trauma.” When the experiment was repeated in the late 1990s, that number had risen to 34%. And the smart money would say that in the modern climate of intense self-reflection and analysis, the number will have skyrocketed even further.
Similarly, in a paper5 published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers conducted a study on what they termed ‘resilient serial entrepreneurs’, using the term to refer to workers who had undergone “past negative entrepreneurial experience” but chosen to re-enter into entrepreneurial activity all the same. They found that these entrepreneurs who had faced hard times, “benefit from enriched cognitive schemas leading them to greater export propensity.” Or, put more simply, they performed better within the international markets the research was conducted in than those who had not previously experienced such professional hardships.
Events within your control
Sometimes we may fail as a result of our own shortcomings, other times due to bad luck or timing. Sometimes, we may even fail because of circumstances totally out of our control, which no doubt leads us to feel especially hard done by. However, one must be extremely careful in assigning events as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of our control, as evidenced by a 2009 article7 in the Journal of Sports Sciences that found that people perform worse in scenarios where they feel the outcome is out of their control than they do when they feel they can have an impact.
A similar study6 was documented in the journal Motivation and Emotion. Researchers conducted an experiment in which one set of participants taking a test were told to try to succeed. The other set of participants was told to avoid failing. Unbeknownst to both sets, some of the questions in the test were unsolvable. The participants told to succeed cottoned onto this insolvability, or at least were so focused on getting answers right that they quickly gave up trying to answer questions that they felt they couldn’t manage, choosing instead to focus their attention on questions they could. The group told to try not to fail, however, “didn’t just get more riled and angrier, they hung in longer” on the impossible questions, leading them to fare worse overall. The researchers concluded, noting the irony, that, “the more people focused on not failing, the more likely they were to fail.”
Risk vs caution, post-failure
The fact that failure is made more likely by a belief that one will fail, or indeed even just that one might, could lead to someone who has experienced failure before taking less risks whenever it is they get back on the horse. But this is the wrong approach. If anything, those who have experienced failure should have a better gauge on their own limits than those who lack such experience, and thus should be prepared to push themselves to their known limits (a far easier and less precarious task than pushing oneself toward limits unknown).
Fear of failure, whether one has experienced it before or not, can only be detrimental. As Anshel notes, “The less we expose ourselves to risk, the greater the chance of failure because we will not grow, mature, develop our skills, and expand our physical, emotional, and mental capacity to stretch our limits and improve.”
Footballers have a clear, pre-defined reset button when they returned from Qatar. For the rest of us, the reset button is ours to press and the blank pages ours to fill. Scary as that prospect may be, if we approach the possibility of failure open-eyed, with a willingness to learn from its teachings, the benefits can be enormous.
6 Lench, Heather C. and Linda J. Levine, “Goals and Responses to Failures: Knowing When to Hold Them and When to Fold Them, “Motivation and Emotion (2008), 32, 127-140.
Following The 1% Podcast with the brilliant and funny Des Bishop, a background thought came to the foreground with further reflection. At the outset of the episode, we settled into our conversation by talking about how past errors or indiscretions helped position us toward a new course. In that regard, we can follow a negative trajectory downward, exacerbating what has gone wrong, or gain clarity and make necessary changes by understanding how and why certain events unfold against our desires or best-made plans.
Making the most of your mistakes
Many know this but may not want to hear it. The concept may be anathema to your sense of being and thinking, and you may not even be willing to process the possibility in your workplace. Nevertheless, let’s talk about it. No matter how cautious, discerning, motivated, prepared, and skilled you are—failure is inevitable. So why does it happen, and why are we afraid of it?
Why we fail
Failure has many makers, and any of the causes below could prove costly. Yet, as a concept, it is something we should be less afraid of, if only because it is unavoidable and can aid us once we grapple with it. According to Shiv Khera, author of You Can Win (2014), we usually fail for one of seven reasons:
- Lack of persistence
- Lack of conviction
- Dismissal of past mistakes
- Lack of discipline
- Poor self-esteem
- A fatalistic attitude
Forbes magazine reiterates a lack of belief and expectation of sub-par outcomes and adds:
- The desire to not be disruptive even if required
- The instinct for self-preservation
- Losing sight of our agency
- Fear of risking what has been built and our legacy
- Real and imagined stagnation
Impatience, a lack of a clear plan, a missing long-term or contingent strategy, and poorly thought-out or unattainable objectives, can be included in the list.
Tuning in versus tuning out
Additionally, failure is frequently related to something happening in our lives. In other words, it is already within us and is a manifestation of an existing discomfort. Humans are complex entities, our psyches are even more layered and nebulous, and we are routinely impacted by unexpected and undesirable circumstances happening to us or around us. Moreover, the minutia of everyday life can easily influence all the causes above.
Therefore, to believe that unwanted aspects of our personal or professional lives can be wholly cordoned off from influencing job performance to some degree is naïve. That said, and as outlined in a previous 1% article, the ability to compartmentalise and conquer is necessary at certain moments, but what happens if and when we cannot do that entirely and are forced to face failure head-on?
Redirection through reappraisal
Random and not-so-random outcomes go against us or do not go according to expectations. Sometimes there is no logic for what has happened, at least in terms of the event itself. Befuddled as we are, we must act. In the corporate environment, often, there is little time or room for context.
What comes next—i.e., fixing it—requires consideration. Once we figure out how and why we can devise and execute a response. That does not simply mean carrying out damage control, although that, too, is a skill. Rather it entails an alteration of our mindset. We must reappraise the situation as well as ourselves. What was our role, if any, in this? What could have been done differently? What was learned, and how can we turn it into a gain? Mistakes can represent an opportunity, one specifically for change.
When we fail, we are highly conscious of the meaning of that setback and its repercussions. Our self-awareness is heightened, and we become more malleable and open-minded because we may be less sure of decisions or what is happening around us. Humans and markets are not always predictable or rational. However, these conditions help enact evolution and transformation, which are metonyms for progress. In that regard, failure precedes success.
Ad astra per aspera
You may know the meaning of the somewhat ambiguous, albeit ubiquitous, Latin phrase above (a rough road leads to the stars), but did you know that it adorns the memorial plaque for the astronauts who died on Apollo I? Not only is the phrase befitting, but its application to this tragic event is instructive.
On February 21, 1967, a cabin fire killed the three astronauts on board during a launch rehearsal. The mission had failed before it had even gotten off the ground. Rather than lose hope and stop, the American space programme looked inward and studied the series of mistakes that led to the accident in granular detail to learn from its errors. It saw fault within itself and did not attempt to shift blame or explain away the tragedy to either bad luck or the unknowable. Ultimately, NASA was better for it.
This shift was embodied by Gene Kranz, the legendary boss of Mission Control, who delivered this impassioned speech three days after the tragedy:
“Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. […] From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. […] Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased.”
These words are known as the ‘Kranz Dictum,’ and they remain pillars of the programme. Surprisingly, Kranz’s 2009 book about the missions he was a part of is entitled, Failure Is Not An Option. Although inspiring, his title is a little misleading. Kranz, and everyone involved with Apollo I, failed. However, they were not defined by this and are instead remembered by their response. Two years later, the programme landed three men on the moon, one of the crowning achievements in the history of the human race.
Looking back, although NASA was interrupted by catastrophic failure to such a degree that it suspended crewed flights for twenty months, they were undeterred and used their mistakes as a catalyst for self-improvement. If we choose (and it is a choice) to use reflection, understanding, and growth as tools, every one of us can harness misfortune and miss-steps similarly.
References & Resources
Khera, Shiv. You Can Win: A Step by Step Tool for Top Achievers. Bloomsbury India, 2014.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster, 2009.