December 10, 2010
 / 

Fantastic Failure

Featured image for “Fantastic Failure”

Is failure the first step to success?

To honor his sister shortly after her death, Greg Mortenson attempted to climb K2, the second-highest mountain on earth. Greg was a collegiate athlete and skilled climber who started his hiking career by climbing Kilimanjaro at age 11. However, during his trek up K2 something went wrong. Part way up the mountain Greg got separated from his climbing team and wandered aimlessly, lost and sick and in dire need of rest. Failing to find help would have likely meant death.

We tend to think of failure in one of two ways: it’s either something to not repeat or something from which we can learn personal lessons about perseverance and character. Interestingly enough, there has been a paradigm shift at some companies in which failure is now accepted and even applauded in some regard. By encouraging risk-taking, businesses can allow bad ideas to get out of the way so good ones can take their place.

But failure is not just the negative space surrounding success. Failures, too, can change the world–just as fundamentally as successes. They can serve as the necessary first round of innovation, an example that brings forth an insight or breakthrough before perishing. That was the exact state Greg Mortenson was in on K2.

Fearing for the worst, Greg stumbled upon the remote Pakistani village of Korphe and its chief named Haji Ali. Mortenson did his best to explain to the chief what had happened–that he had come to Pakistan to climb K2 but he had become weak and sick and walked to the village hoping to find someone to take him on the 8-hour journey down. Mortenson eventually sank onto the cushions in the chief’s hut and fell unshakably asleep. As he recovered he became acquainted with the village’s people. He fell in love with the children of the village but noticed that they were receiving little-to-no education. He explains in his book “Three Cups of Tea,” “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons? I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, I had to do something.”

Today Mortenson’s company, the Central Asia Institute, works to plant a handful of schools in the hardest places of all, empower the communities in these areas to sustain those projects, and then step back in the hope that government and other non-governmental organizations will start moving toward these points from areas that aren’t quite so rough, until the gap is eventually bridged. Surprisingly often, that’s exactly what happens.

Ultimately Mortenson’s failure lead him to a future success, one that is now changing the world. Indeed, Greg is quite the opposite of a failure.Since its debut in 2007, Three Cups of Tea has sold more than 3 million copies, made it on the New York Times’ best seller list and been published in over 40 countries. He has made over 680 appearances in 270 cities and towns, speaking to tens of thousands of people who flock to hear his story. But all of his success can be traced back to his first big failure.

Everywhere you look, our world has been shaped fundamentally by failures. In the midst of his endless toil in Menlo Park, Tom Edison quipped “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Many of those 10,000 failures lead to the invention of the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb as well as his 1,092 US patents. Automobile designer and entrepreneur Preston Tucker failed to have his “Tucker ’48” mass produced but his ideas about automobile safety prefigured the era of airbags and three-point seat belts.

Bill Clinton lost elections in high school and his bid to be reelected as governor in 1980 but the lost elections drove him to greater things: “I was probably the youngest ex-governor in American history. But if I hadn’t been defeated, I probably would have never become president. It was a near-death experience, but it forced me to be more sensitive and to understand that if people think you’ve stopped listening, you’re sunk.”

In a way, seen through a long enough lens, everything in business is eventually a failure. Every innovation will ultimately be usurped by something that does the same thing more cheaply or more effectively or even more elegantly. Everything is failing all the time; it’s just a matter of how quickly and how devastatingly. In his book, The Nature & Aesthetics of Design, industrial designer David Pye attempted to lay the very notion of success to rest: “Nothing we design or make ever really works. We can always say what it ought to do, but that it never does,” he wrote. “Everything we design and make is improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional.” Sometimes the dominos of failure fall perfectly revealing the great success of it all.

In the Sermon On The Mount, Jesus gave comfort to those dealing with failure and hardships stating, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The teaching is clear: if we are failing in worthy causes, we will ultimately be blessed, though the blessing we receive may not always be what we expect. Greg Mortenson wasn’t expecting to find a new calling for his life part way up K2, but that’s exactly what failure brought him. Very fittingly, the first chapter in his best-selling book is named “Failure.” For Greg and for many others, failure has become the first step of success.


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December 10, 2010
 / 

Fantastic Failure

Featured image for “Fantastic Failure”

Is failure the first step to success?

To honor his sister shortly after her death, Greg Mortenson attempted to climb K2, the second-highest mountain on earth. Greg was a collegiate athlete and skilled climber who started his hiking career by climbing Kilimanjaro at age 11. However, during his trek up K2 something went wrong. Part way up the mountain Greg got separated from his climbing team and wandered aimlessly, lost and sick and in dire need of rest. Failing to find help would have likely meant death.

We tend to think of failure in one of two ways: it’s either something to not repeat or something from which we can learn personal lessons about perseverance and character. Interestingly enough, there has been a paradigm shift at some companies in which failure is now accepted and even applauded in some regard. By encouraging risk-taking, businesses can allow bad ideas to get out of the way so good ones can take their place.

But failure is not just the negative space surrounding success. Failures, too, can change the world–just as fundamentally as successes. They can serve as the necessary first round of innovation, an example that brings forth an insight or breakthrough before perishing. That was the exact state Greg Mortenson was in on K2.

Fearing for the worst, Greg stumbled upon the remote Pakistani village of Korphe and its chief named Haji Ali. Mortenson did his best to explain to the chief what had happened–that he had come to Pakistan to climb K2 but he had become weak and sick and walked to the village hoping to find someone to take him on the 8-hour journey down. Mortenson eventually sank onto the cushions in the chief’s hut and fell unshakably asleep. As he recovered he became acquainted with the village’s people. He fell in love with the children of the village but noticed that they were receiving little-to-no education. He explains in his book “Three Cups of Tea,” “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons? I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, I had to do something.”

Today Mortenson’s company, the Central Asia Institute, works to plant a handful of schools in the hardest places of all, empower the communities in these areas to sustain those projects, and then step back in the hope that government and other non-governmental organizations will start moving toward these points from areas that aren’t quite so rough, until the gap is eventually bridged. Surprisingly often, that’s exactly what happens.

Ultimately Mortenson’s failure lead him to a future success, one that is now changing the world. Indeed, Greg is quite the opposite of a failure.Since its debut in 2007, Three Cups of Tea has sold more than 3 million copies, made it on the New York Times’ best seller list and been published in over 40 countries. He has made over 680 appearances in 270 cities and towns, speaking to tens of thousands of people who flock to hear his story. But all of his success can be traced back to his first big failure.

Everywhere you look, our world has been shaped fundamentally by failures. In the midst of his endless toil in Menlo Park, Tom Edison quipped “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Many of those 10,000 failures lead to the invention of the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb as well as his 1,092 US patents. Automobile designer and entrepreneur Preston Tucker failed to have his “Tucker ’48” mass produced but his ideas about automobile safety prefigured the era of airbags and three-point seat belts.

Bill Clinton lost elections in high school and his bid to be reelected as governor in 1980 but the lost elections drove him to greater things: “I was probably the youngest ex-governor in American history. But if I hadn’t been defeated, I probably would have never become president. It was a near-death experience, but it forced me to be more sensitive and to understand that if people think you’ve stopped listening, you’re sunk.”

In a way, seen through a long enough lens, everything in business is eventually a failure. Every innovation will ultimately be usurped by something that does the same thing more cheaply or more effectively or even more elegantly. Everything is failing all the time; it’s just a matter of how quickly and how devastatingly. In his book, The Nature & Aesthetics of Design, industrial designer David Pye attempted to lay the very notion of success to rest: “Nothing we design or make ever really works. We can always say what it ought to do, but that it never does,” he wrote. “Everything we design and make is improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional.” Sometimes the dominos of failure fall perfectly revealing the great success of it all.

In the Sermon On The Mount, Jesus gave comfort to those dealing with failure and hardships stating, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The teaching is clear: if we are failing in worthy causes, we will ultimately be blessed, though the blessing we receive may not always be what we expect. Greg Mortenson wasn’t expecting to find a new calling for his life part way up K2, but that’s exactly what failure brought him. Very fittingly, the first chapter in his best-selling book is named “Failure.” For Greg and for many others, failure has become the first step of success.



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