Failure is Always and Option

I love Mythbusters. Of course the big explosions, ridiculous set ups, and humor go a long way, but it is more how they deal with failure that stands out to me. Adam Savage has a line he almost always repeats that plays on the famous words of NASA’s Gene Krantz— “Failure is always and option.” Or, in more scientific language, an experiment always produces a result. It may not be the result we expect, but it is a result nonetheless. 

That is how science works. Propose a hypothesis, test it, and learn from the results. Then, adjust the hypothesis and try again.

However, with so many technological advances in our culture in the last century, it is really hard to appreciate the role of failure in our everyday life. Nearly everything we use in a day is designed to work. It wouldn’t be in our hands or on our desks if it had not been tested for months and years. In fact, many of our common tools such as phones and computers are now designed to take away any friction in their use. Graphic interfaces make it so that we do not have to deal with the layers and layers of computer code that make the device work. All the possibilities of failure have been worked out, and the mechanics are covered over so that we can use the tool with as little effort as possible.

However, it is when something like a computer or phone does not work that we come face to face with failure. The object in front of us does not bend to our wishes or will, and thus we have to fix it. In trying to fix it, or in scientific language adjust our hypothesis and understanding, we are the ones who have to bend to the object in front of us. As Matthew Crawford notes in his book “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” fixing things takes humility and honesty. 

This is why Crawford argues that moral formation and work go hand in hand. For the mechanic, the computer technician, or even the doctor the object of their work is not of their own making. They haven’t constructed the car, computer, or body and thus must submit to the ways the thing actually works. No matter how ideal the picture of the object is in their head, they are confronted with the reality. So they must test, explore, and learn from their mistakes. Getting the car, computer, or body working is not so much a matter of the ideal portrait in their heads, as it is dealing with what actually exists and making it work better. 

Confronted by an object like this, something that does not follow my best of intentions, forces me to confront my own stuff. If I am sitting on the ground next to my motorcycle trying to figure out the latest hiccup, I am not only facing the breakdown of the machine, I am confronted by my own pride and frustration. I have to cultivate a new patience and new humility in the very process of trying to fix it. And at times, I have to give up and seek out others so that I don’t end up doing more damage to the thing in front of me. In classical terms, I work on my virtues (humility, patience, and honesty) in the very process of working on something else.

In our day of instant response, frictionless computing, and professional standards, we have lost sight of the necessity of failure. If someone misspeaks, spin specialists swoop in so that humility and honesty are set aside in favor of a spotless image. Or, even worse, we project the blame on others and on systems that fail to meet our expectations. The ego, then, trumps everything as we all seek to save face and skirt the humiliation of failure.

Unfortunately for our culture, failure is always an option. In fact, failure is necessary. For the early desert monks, failure was an opportunity to cultivate the virtues. Though they mythologized the desert or wilderness as the home of the demons, it was in fact the place where they were stripped of all the conveniences of city life and were thus brought face to face with nature as a thing beyond their control. Just like the mechanic faced with the engine that just won’t work, the monk was confronted with an environment that had no regard for his own health, well-being, or intentions. His pride and arrogance, fueled by such things as social class or even the ease with which he could find water in the city, had to be shattered in the wilderness. In essence, he was stripped bare of the conveniences that shielded him from failure so that he could see the state of his own soul. 

At some point, we must confront our own arrogance and pride. Though the late Roman city seems downright hostile compared to the conveniences of modern life and the glitches of our computers (#firstworldproblems), we do confront the world and our tools as something beyond the full reach of our will and intention. It is why the modern idea that ethics and knowledge (the formation of our character and the accumulation of knowledge) are never separate projects. Instead, in the midst of inevitable failure we come to know ourselves and cultivate the virtues of humility, honesty, and patience. For a world that often turns virtues into vices, this welcoming of failure is downright counter-cultural.

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