The reason a friend of mine ultimately decided to make history his major of study in college is because he loves to hear and tell stories – especially true ones. There is power in the past, he says, and he feels that it is important to learn about it. Whether they be stories of country, the world, his family, the economy, epic expeditions, tragedies, or the greatest of human triumphs and failures, it’s all important to him – and pretty interesting. His entire life, he has been greatly influenced and inspired by those stories and experiences; many of them steering him onto the paths that he decided to take.
The thing is, a study in history is all about others. They spend their time reading and writing about everyone and everything else. Most of the time in school we only hear the important and noteworthy stories about success, conquest, and glory – the noble and great ones and their achievements. From this, my friend experiences a sense of vicarious satisfaction. It’s as if those stories distract him from his own, and for some reason he welcomes that. Considering this strange reality, he has determined that despite his love of their stories, the reality is that he doesn’t like his own. He becomes very uncomfortable when invited to share the story he is living. Instead of relating a story, he often feels the need to explain himself. Explaining yourself and telling your story are completely different things. And though my friend wishes he could tell his own story the way he can tell that of another, he just can’t. The reason, he has concluded, is because he thinks he has failed a lot.
As he examined his life during our conversation, especially his young adulthood since graduating high school, he mostly perceives a series of setbacks and let downs, not achievements and successes. When he looks back on his own history, he doesn’t feel like he has lived up to what he ought to have been, and for that he considers himself a failure. Perhaps his attitude may not be the healthiest, in fact he knows it isn’t, but he was just being honest. He’s working on living a better story, but it’s a work in progress…for all of us. The chaos, dissonance, and disappointment he has experienced in recent years has taken a toll on his confidence. And seeing as we are living a chapter in our stories where confidence is the key to success (in dating, education and career decisions, etc.) he feels like he has been dealt a crippling blow.
But he has always had the right idea, or so he’s been told. He’s always had good intentions. In other words, when he comes up short – when he receives a poor grade on a paper, is reprimanded at work, gets hopelessly lost in the wilderness, or never seems to make relationships work, he always initially sets out with the right idea. Rarely do people intend to fail. The reason, he told me, that having the right idea that still results in less-than-favorable circumstances is so devastating is because he begins to feel that no matter he does, things won’t work out. Consequently, it’s difficult for him to stick with things. Despite all this, my friend believes in a bright future. He’s good at making big plans and has a respectably clear vision for what he wants his life to be, but he does such a great job at sabotaging himself that if he keeps on the track he’s on, he might not amount to anything. My friend appears to be in a cycle of hopelessness…and that doesn’t make for a very good story.
To illustrate his point, he related to me one of his favorite stories. In February 1967, NASA was set to launch Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee as pilots of Apollo 1, the first rocket mission of the Apollo program in what would be a procession of manned space flights culminating ultimately in an American lunar landing. With a launch date set for February 21, it was a day awaited with much anticipation. It would be a day in which a new era of man’s exploration of the final frontier would commence.
On January 27, just under a month prior to the launch date, members of the Apollo 1 crew underwent a rehearsal of launch procedures while sealed in the command module atop the behemoth Saturn IB rocket. While engaged in the tests, an electrical spark ignited a fire in the command module, turning the pressurized, oxygen filled cabin into an inescapable fiery inferno and virtually cremating the Astronauts inside. The loss was devastating for the Apollo program, NASA, and for the country as a whole. Those men are remembered as real American heroes, among many others lost as casualties in pursuit of the stars.
For over twenty months, NASA suspended all manned tests and missions of spacecraft as a result of the Apollo 1 catastrophe. During that time, scientists and engineers worked tirelessly, addressing first and foremost the technical malfunctions of Apollo 1, as well as innovating and improving existing equipment, procedures, and technology so as to be better prepared for future missions. Those twenty months following tragedy became invaluable to NASA and future Astronauts, seeing as the precautions taken and the improvements implemented made future missions smoother and safer. Honoring the ultimate sacrifice of the Astronauts of Apollo 1, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin set foot on lunar soil on January 20th, 1969, and returned home successfully on January 24th. Almost two years later – to the day.
I think the reason my friend told me this story is to emphasize how triumph can be born of failure – beauty formed from ashes in the most literal sense. Though the failures and adversities we experience in our lives may not be quite as consequential as the ignominious loss of three American lives, we possess the same capacity to learn from mistakes and set backs and make the changes necessary to improve. If we metaphorically allow ourselves those twenty months of innovation and reform after we lose, I believe we too can achieve amazing things. After all, the same flag flying over the graves of Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee now flies on the moon.
The truth is that the friend I speak of is actually me. Sometimes I wish I had a friend that could tell me something helpful and give me wise words to think on. But alas, we’re all just trying to figure things out. I’ve been thinking about what else I might say to myself if I were listening to myself as a friend, but I haven’t thought of a whole lot. Life is complicated, challenging, and unpredictable, that’s all I know. Failure is a part of life that needs to be navigated and learned from, and hopefully down the line something works out in the end. If we don’t like what we’ve done and we can’t fix it or do it over again, we can only control what we do next. I can imagine that when NASA engineers showed up for work the day after the fire, they had a lot of work to do and a list of seemingly insurmountable tasks to complete. I’m sure they had to think real hard to solve difficult problems. They had to do hard things to overcome the bitterness of their failures. But they did it, and so can we.
Eugene Kranz, who served as Flight Director at NASA throughout both the Gemini and the Apollo space programs, communicated these words to mission controllers following the Apollo 1 disaster. He said:
“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. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. 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. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
My hope is that we too choose to be Tough and Competent in our efforts to address and overcome our shortcomings in life; that we forever remain accountable for our failures and never compromise our responsibilities; that we are never found short of our knowledge and our skills; and most importantly, that we never fear doing hard things and that we shoot for the stars. After all, it’s the American way.
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“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, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; 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 fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt