Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Failure

Everyone can celebrate the accomplishment and heroism of a man like Joseph Kittenger, who took the "long, lonely leap", skydiving from the edge of space in 1960 and setting a record that is yet to be broken.  The Art of Manliness blog recently profiled his story for their "A Man's Life" feature.  But what about the "magnificent failure" of the man who tried to break his record, Nick Piantanida, whom Art of Manliness profiled in a sequel to Kettinger's story.  After a life of shoestring exploits, Piantanida died from the effects of a failed attempt to beat Kittenger's record. AoM sums up the question of Piantanida's legacy well:

Was Nick a reckless daredevil? His jumps were never about the thrill; he genuinely wished to aid scientific progress, to push the limits of what was out there, and to accomplish something no other man had done. Did he prepare enough? He did the best an ordinary civilian could have but inevitably lacked the opportunities for rigorous testing and the access to the very best and most experienced minds in the field.

What are we to make of a man like Nick? Was his inability to admit the risk of failure, and the chance he might leave his children fatherless a form of hubris? Or should we cheer his adventurous spirit, DIY effort, and manful demonstration that great daring is not reserved for the loners or the lucky?

I'm reminded of another great failure in history, Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.  Sure, that Norwegian fellow made it there first.  And none of Scott's party made it back alive.  Still, I think there is a place to celebrate heroism even in failure.  Scott himself thought so, as he wrote in his journal these words, recorded on a memorial to the Terra Nova expedition in Queenstown, New Zealand:

For my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks; we knew we took them.  Things have come out against us, and therefore we have cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.

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