Thursday, April 7, 2011

failure and success

I once heard that the Japanese honor some of their greatest failures ... a military adventure that failed in the distant past whispers without details in my mind. And it makes sense to me. Failure is so often eclipsed by the accolades that accompany success, but I think it's a mistake to look down on personal or national failures. As Edison said when asked about his 2,000 failed experiments to create the light bulb, "I didn't fail 2,000 times. I discovered 2,000 ways that didn't work."

True for nations. True for individuals. The taste of failure may be bitter, but the lessons are enriching and sweet, whatever the cuss words. But I guess such a recognition comes with age and experience. The inexperienced and stupid remain mired in the "oh shit!" of failure.

I was watching a TV show last night about strange and inventive ideas put forward during World War II.

-- An aircraft carrier made of ice that never got off the drawing boards because the amount of steel required to create a facility in which to create enough ice (mixed with sawdust) was enough to create an aircraft carrier of steel ... and the ice idea was meant to address a major steel shortage.

-- In the wake of the Doolittle raid, the Japanese developed 9,000 explosives-bearing balloons intended to float on the jet stream from Japan to the U.S. and sow fear and havoc. About 1,000 actually made it but did not hit any major cities in either the U.S. or Canada, although five people were killed in Oregon. "The United States government went to extraordinary measures to keep information on the Japanese balloon bombs out of the media."

-- Behaviorist, inventor and social philosopher B.F. Skinner, then at Harvard, trained pigeons that would be inserted in bombs and would guide those bombs to their naval targets. The training worked, but apparently the pigeons were never used.

-- A dentist suggested using bats to carry small amounts of incendiary material into Japanese cities after being parachuted from above. The bats would nest in the largely wood and paper crevices of Japanese towns until the devices exploded ... and burned the town down. The experiment never got further than the military base where the suitably-packaged bats got loose ... and burned down the base. (According to the TV show.)

All of these stories are bizarre and distant enough to engender wonder and snickering, I imagine. But what of our own inventions and our own failures. The Chinese word for "crisis" contains two characters, one representing "danger" and the other "opportunity." When looking back on our own past, how many of the lessons that were laced with despair or sorrow turn out to be the richest and most informative? Yes, it's a delight to find we made the right choices and that there was a successful outcome, but what of the failures that informed and guided that success?

In my own life, I look back on an adventure in Zen Buddhism. I had gone to a monastery all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I hoped to become a monk. I hoped to become enlightened. I hoped -- though I didn't put it that way -- for a blue ribbon of success. Monastics were heroic in my mind and I too wanted to be heroic. But instead of blue ribbons and heroism ... I flunked out. I simply was not cut out for the monastic life and I left after two months where I had signed on (initially) for six. It felt like an abject failure. My spiritual life was dealt a body blow: How could I attain the top of the mountain if I simply could not climb in the way that my heroes had climbed. I failed with a capital 'F.' And I floundered in my own failure. Spiritual effort was what I took to be important in my life and I simply was not up to that importance. Oh shit!

How many people take jobs, get married, travel great distances or expend energy in a similar way -- bright-eyed and bushy-tailed only to find that the imagined success was out of reach? On the one hand, the success of the project never turned out to be exactly as imagined or, on the other, it turned out to be an utter failure.In the first instance (not exactly as imagined), there is a tendency to take what we get and be pleased that it has some element of success. We forget the original dream and applaud the success in hand. In the second instance -- at least for the moment -- it's a real downer.

Perhaps it is age and experience that tame the ways in which we view success and failure. I look back on the monastery with some serious thanks. I fell flat on my ass and ... well, it brought seriousness to what before I had merely claimed to take seriously.

It's no good sneering at the ignorance of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed -- the ones who imagine they can lay claim to and control their imagined success. It's a failure that will, with luck, bear serious fruit. No one ever got smart without being stupid first.

Maybe age and experience teach the lesson -- applause and catcalls really don't matter so much. What matters is the effort and attention.

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