Saturday, August 1, 2015

How To Fail Successfully

"Failure is not an option."

Ever since I heard those words uttered in the film Apollo 13 I took a solemn vow to make the enormity of that phrase my life's work. 

I was five years old, mind you. 

But even for a child the meaning was clear and Gene Kranz (portrayed superbly by Ed Harris) pulled no punches in his delivery. There were three astronauts in a capsule over 200,000 miles away from home. A capsule which was mortally wounded and bleeding oxygen, the one thing necessary to sustain life in the vacuum which surrounded them. The engineers and scientists at NASA has less than a week to bring them home. Alive. No American had ever died during spaceflight and Kranz was not about to let it happen on his watch. Heady stuff for a five year old I know, but I absorbed it all and went gung ho into the world, ready to never fail in my life. Thirteen years later, that quote graced the Class of 2007's yearbook as my senior quote. That was a point of contention for me. There were other, more angsty quotes ready to go but I finally decided that that principle was the one which guided me to where I was and who I was and thus that settled the deal. I have no signatures in my yearbook, in case you were wondering. 

The truth is, of course, that failure is inevitable and it is necessary in order to grow. Five year old Paul didn't see that due to childish naivete and eighteen year old Paul also missed the crux of the meaning because he was too busy thinking he was the be all and end all of Creation. Luckily, twenty-six year old Paul finally figured this out after some painful first-hand experiences in falling flat on his face. The truth is, the crux of Kranz's quote is in what he doesn't say. 

NASA certainly isn't a perfect organization. The famous "normalization of deviance" pattern coined to describe the agency after the loss of Challenger has cost NASA seventeen astronauts to date. In each case these systemic, catastrophic patterns of failures led to a moment much like Kranz's; only the momentum of bureaucracy, pressure down the command chain, and a preventable malfunction ended in tragedy for the agency, country, and astronaut corps. NASA is haunted by "what-if" moments: the pure oxygen atmosphere of Apollo 1, the O-ring and weather conditions for Challenger, and the leading edge wing testing for Columbia. The background knowledge built through decades of close calls and process failures should have been enough for failure to not be an option and a proactive, life-saving decision to be made, but none was made at all and tragedy resulted. Failure, especially in the beginning, is acceptable. Not learning from failure is fatal. 

Which brings us back to Kranz. At his moment with lives in the balance, he called upon every background resource he had available to him. Every flight test, on-orbit maneuver, and diagram of the Apollo capsule was used to help the crew. The most valuable information gathered was when the capsule and lunar module were pushed to their operational limits. He let his team devise ingenious solutions to the problems which plagued the astronauts all while he maintained a calm yet commanding presence over the mission control center. Kranz and his team understood the problem, traced past failures, and used the knowledge accrued to bring the wounded Odyssey and Aquarius back home with three lives to spare. That's how you fail: normally at first then nominally when it counts. 

If there's a takeaway to my ramblings, it's this: be encouraged to push your limits and mess up. It's the only way you will discover what you are truly capable of, and when this is accomplished take note of your shortcomings and find a team who will complement you and cover all the bases. Do not be afraid to fail, just do not make it a pattern. 

Res gestae per excellentiam. 

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