Ode to the failures

I was just busy grilling up a steak in my super trustworthy Bauer pan. It’s non-stick but I suggest you use oil, those infomercials usually exaggerates a bit. Anyway, while the steak was sizzling away a thought popped into my head, and it has nothing to do with steak, pans or cooking. I just thought about how much we owe to the people who failed in their attempts at whatever they were passionate about at that stage. We remember and study those who made huge breakthroughs or were the first to achieve something in their field of interest. Think about people like Chris Barnard or Thomas Edison, most of us know who they were and their names will probably be mentioned many years from now still. For those who don’t know, Barnard was the first man to perform a successful human heart transplant while Edison had one of the greatest ideas ever, so he designed a light bulb to commemorate it.                                 

Fact is: people like these will be known and praised for many a year while the ones who failed doing these exact same things will most probably not be known or studied by most people.

What a stupid statement of me to make, why would anyone study the guy (or girl) who tried to discover a better way to freeze food? Who cares? We’re only interested in the guy that finally made the breakthrough, we want to read his autobiography and discover how he sees the world – we want to learn from the best. We want to know more about Clarence Birdseye, the man who’s experiments to see which methods of freezing fish worked best lead to the modern frozen food industry, we’re not bothered about the other dude who was involved in similar experiments but just didn’t crack the code.

I’m not trying to convince anyone here that they must research people who tried but didn’t make it. You probably wouldn’t find too much material on them in any case. I was just thinking how many people took the first step in a certain direction which encouraged everyone else to try as well and take it further? How many people spent most of their savings on an experiment only to fail but allowed others not to make the same mistake and thus succeeded? I also realise that the ones who do succeed and become famous most probably also failed greatly on the way to their eureka moment.

The saying that ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’ has become a cliché by now because it is very true but that is not what I’m trying to get at. If one fails and finally achieve what you set out to do it must be one of the most satisfying feelings in life and that is what we would hope is the outcome for every candidate who act with the goal of improving our current circumstances. What is a tough one to swallow however is chasing after something with a burning passion but not achieving it. Knowing you came so close perhaps but not living to see it come to fruition, not seeing the final result.

The struggle that someone like William Wilberforce went through after he committed himself fully to the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and that extreme satisfaction he felt when he finally succeeded is truly a great and very inspirational story. Of the greatest stories I have heard however are those of men and women who had a goal before them with their face set on it like flint. They pursued it even if they knew they might not be the ones to complete the task at hand. Then you hear of how their work (or failures) set the stage for others to do great things. I know a few of these stories, some of them involving people still alive today, but will not share them now. I will leave you with one of my all time favourite quotes though:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt




PS – another related quote I discovered more recently from a speech given by Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, Leader of the Liberal Party, on the centenary of Robert Burns’ death. Given at St. Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow, on 21 July 1896: 

“We have something to be grateful for even in the weaknesses of men like Burns. Mankind is helped in its progress almost as much by the study of imperfection as by the contemplation of perfection. Had we nothing before us in our futile and halting lives but saints and the ideal, we might well fail altogether.”


About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
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