The week of June 14, 2015

Learning from (other people’s) failure

By Jesse Hicks

The old chestnut goes that you can learn a lot more from failure than you can from success. This week we’re examining that notion through several different stories.

First, there’s the story of Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit that wants to send volunteer astronauts on a one-way trip to the red planet starting in 2026. It’s a bold plan, to say the least, and after an initial flurry of positive press, many people are now looking with a more skeptical eye. Is Mars One an impossible dream? If so, does that make it a (preemptive) failure? “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” asked the poet Robert Browning, and Mars One’s would-be astronauts are surely grasping farther. Ramon Ramirez reports on their progress, and what makes them want to believe.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we’ve spent the last century fighting a war against drugs, with real casualties and real consequences—a war that increasingly looks like a failure. I talked to British author Johann Hari, who spent the last three years traveling the globe talking to those on the frontlines, from dealers to police to academics and politicians. He visited places like Juarez, Mexico, where the war rages on and damages untold lives, and Switzerland, where authorities have instead chosen to treat addicts rather than jail them. Along the way, he asks fundamental questions about the origins of this war, about our collective understanding of addiction, and about the forces supporting the status quo. Ultimately, he asks, if the drug war has failed, what do we do next? And what have we learned?

Tom Green, like many a celebrity, is someone who has learned from failure. The comedian started doing standup while barely a teenager, then graduated to a public-access television show. From there he jumped to MTV and became a household name. He was briefly married to Drew Barrymore. But then he got cancer, and his show went on hiatus, and a movie career fizzled out. When he returned to the network years later, low ratings killed his comeback. But he found other ways to do what he loved, including podcasts and an online show. Failure, just maybe, helped Tom Green find his niche.

Failure is the human condition: Almost by definition, it’s more common than success. Sometimes failures can be predictable; sometimes they can be global and ongoing (the war on drugs). But as Mars One shows, there’s nobility in the striving, and as Tom Green proves, there’s always another opportunity to dust yourself off and try again.

Photo via (CC BY 2.0)