Reframing the Mental Construct:
Were it not for failure, success would be bounded, were it not for a step back, the view would be limited and were it not for this, that would not be history. Humans have long been risk-takers. It is in that; this, that thought, understanding, art, science that civilizations have progressed.
The unreasonableness of the risk accounts for the leaps and bounds in life. Yet is it is all delivered through the faults and failures of preceding thoughts that marshal the forces of success.
A drink to success is a dance with failures. We humans delight in the successful and telegraph the glory of that halo, yet unlike the enthusiasm for the victories we show colossal disdain for the failures. So why does this term “Failure” elicit the eviscerated sense of emptiness? Why does it knead the desires into a flattened sense of self? Why?
Just as there is loneliness at the top, there is a similar sense of worthlessness at the bottom. Both are extremes of a spectrum of desire and accomplishment. However failure is full of promise. The promise to shrug the misstep, the promise to try, the promise to change, the promise to succeed and the promise to achieve. Down there the world is awash with promise, but only if the mind suffering the defeat is able to reconcile the pain and continue to feed the desire.
“You know,” he said in his most unassuming voice, “I like it here.” He reflected a moment and then unhurriedly continued, “after being humiliated by the biggest debacle of my life.”
He had lost a fortune in an enterprise that had more potential then raindrops in the clouds. His worth diminished in material sense now seem to embolden him towards a bolder and more determined future. Jack as they called him was a 48 year-old businessman. He had worked his way up the ladder into the CEO’s office. Now with the loss of fortune and termination from his employment, he sat quietly, his hands clasped save for the thumbs that kept wiggling –a physical manifestation of the turns and turbulence in his mind.
“I cant see the future clearly yet, but I do see the bright light out there.”
“Jack, I don’t know how you do it, but it is quite compelling to see you optimistic in the face of this tragedy.” His companion also a president of one of the “dot.com” companies sat next to him.
“Tragedy it is, no question about it.” Jack lingered a moment, “But I consider it an opportunity.”
“Good for you.” Dan his commiserating companion encouraged.
“You know, this product failure may have been averted.”
“Why do you say that, when all the experts have testified that it was a non-starter and that the company should not have invested 40% of their R&D capital for three years in it. That’s what they blame you for.”
“I know that well, Dan. But I also know the biologics of the product. I know the chemistry, I have spent the better part of the last six months figuring out the steps of this failure and I know that the basis on which I relied are sound. The execution of the trials was the problem. I should have maintained complete oversight of the methodologies of the trials, instead of farming it to the young turks the company hired to do the job.”
“But that was their domain. They were trained at top schools for just that.” Dan replied, concerned about his friend’s denial of failure.
“Yes but they did not have emotions and desire invested in it.”
“Jack let me ask you a question. How can emotion and desire make a failed product a success?”
“It is not a failed product, Dan. The faulty reasoning used in the trials with comparisons to other biologics of differing mode of action is not the right way of determining efficacy. One needs to compare it to the standard treatment and in the pilot trial our product was a huge success. How can it be such a success and fail miserably in the next go-around?”
“Well for one, the number of participating individuals in the second trial were three-times more and that makes for a more robust experiment.”
“Yes, but the comparator was changed. Instead of using standard therapy as done in Phase I, the trial managers used another biologic. The inherent problem there is if a slight disadvantage was seen early in the interim, there would be hue-and cry for cross-over. By virtue of that simple fact one product would suffer the ignominy of defeat. But if you tease out the details from the trials as I have done, our product was equivalent if not superior to the comparator. Further, If the trial had continued the extra six months it would have shown the disparity fairly easily.” Jack said.
Three hundred miles to the East of that meeting between Jack and Dan and 2 years forward in time finds the landscape changed for Jack. He has started a small company with four employees. He funds the firm from his savings. He works 20 hours a day and his goal is to create a biologic that will suppress the growth potential of the cancer cell by directing it to reconvert into a normal cell. He is close to realizing his dream. He is close to solving the riddle from his past failure. He is determined to see it to its natural conclusion. He is determined. He does not dream of success. He does not venture into riches that might follow. He does not look for fame. He works hard and each day a failure is something to learn from and success is something to be relegated to the past without fanfare. The adventure to him is in the journey and obstacles are just challenges to surmount. He calls his firm “Ontogenics.”
From failure arises the genius of the next success. Jack is sure of his convictions. He needs time and resource to fight the fight. The mixture for the brew is ready. The mixing is all that is needed. Jack and humanity both will find out soon enough.
Searching for the anatomy of failure one finds hubris and impatience that overrides compassion and dedication. Failure is a composite of many human attributes and none are as strong as desire. It is the desire that seeks to achieve and sometime the single focus blindness that marches to its own beat out-serves its purpose and reason. If all logical desires have embedded skepticism, then failure can be not as devastating when it arrives at the shores of reality.
In aviation there are several untimely frosts that have grounded a fleet of excellent ideas. Take for example Eclipse Aircraft Corporation. A brilliant concept of producing high integrity aircraft for a fraction of the market price thus minimizing profitability and beating the market through volume sales. They took it from the Cirrus Aircraft Corporation page book. Cirrus had been delivering over 200 aircraft annually when the demand dried up just a little to hurt the survivability profit margin. An attempt to raise the price per aircraft later was met with skepticism by both the consumer and the investors. Cirrus Aircraft is currently pending sale to a Chinese corporation. Eclipse on the other hand has changed partners three times. It appears that the new owners of the Eclipse Aircraft assets have learnt from the past and are navigating gingerly through the current turbulent economic times to achieve success.
Success is a model built on failure. If a product comes to market with no history of failure during its development then it is destined to mediocrity. It is the failures that trigger the scrutiny to learn and retool or reallocate and redesign.
Spectacular failures also pockmark the history in medicine. Take for example the drug Thalidomide. This was used as sedative in pregnant women only to find that it caused Phocomilia in the children (Phocomilia = born without arms and legs) Turns out that the drug has some inherent properties in the development of the vascular and growth structure of the limb-buds in utero. It was banned immediately to prevent further health problems. Yet recently the drug has found a significant success in the treatment of Multiple Myeloma and in Myelodysplastic Syndromes. Of course it is banned in pregnant women still as it should be.
Pernicious Anemia we know now is a deficiency of Vitamin B12 absorption due to the lack of an Intrinsic Factor in the stomach (needed for its absorpton). But ages ago it derived its name of being pernicious since the cause remained unknown. In the days of blood letting and several years after, the treatment was amputation of arms and legs. Since Vitamin B 12 deficiency is associated with both limitation of Red Cell production and effect on the white cell but also has a detrimental effect on the brain’s function. This led to the drastic measures undertaken until the discovery that eating raw liver made the symptoms disappear and from there the discovery of the actual deficient causative element; Vitamin B12.
Image mistakes have made many a man weep post election in the United States: Richard Nixon and his unshaven face on a national debate facing a young spry John F. Kennedy. Presidential contender Gary Hart and his dalliance with Ms. Rice exposed him to the moralistic reprimand of the voters. Unfortunately for Gary Hart he was never able to recover from that image, however Richard Nixon did become the President and succumbed to his internal psychological demons.
A classic example of learned lessons comes from the worlds second largest enterprise in 2011; Apple Computer. Apple was ahead of the consumer by more than a decade when it brought the “Newton” pad to market. It was a spectacular device for that time. A new paradigm, yet for several reasons the market was not ready to embrace that technology. As time has passed Apple has reintroduced the pad/tablet concept slowly through iPod, then iPhone and now with iPad with huge brand-name and economic success. The learning curve was significant when the losses were mounting and the fate of the company hung in the balance in the 90s but true to his calling Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs knew when the time was right to start the new cycle.
Failure is a step towards success. It is through the missteps and sometime over-reach that we ultimately tie the knot of success to the product. The more the hurdles that we face the stronger we get, the more sharpened our focus becomes and the better our understanding. The desire to avoid failure is courting with the fate that leads to failure. Life lived in the trenches of defeat with fortitude and resilience will foster the eventual seed of ultimate success.
Live, Learn and Prosper!