Charlie Harper: Let’s Learn To Celebrate Failure To Get More Success

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, June 11th, 2024

It was a good week for American technology and innovation.  On January 5th, Boeing launched its Starliner rocket system carrying two people to the International Space Station.  The successful flight represents the replacement of the Space Shuttle’s role in crewed space flight.  SpaceX, meanwhile, launched non-crewed missions into space on June 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th.

NASA granted two contracts in 2014 to provide next generation lift systems to get Americans back into space.  Boeing was awarded a $4.2 billion contract for the development of Starliner, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX was awarded a similar contract for $2.6 billion.

SpaceX launched its first operational mission in 2020 of its crewed Dragon Capsule, and has thus far completed eleven missions with astronauts on board.  Eight of those were flown for NASA, with three operated for the private company Axiom Space, per 

Boeing, meanwhile, is estimated to have taken a charge for cost overruns for the Starliner in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion per CNBC, while delivering an operational vehicle system four years later than SpaceX.  Both lift systems are now operational, and both are considered a success.

How we define success – and how we achieve it – is often about how we define and address failure. Whether it be in cutting edge science or something any of us are trying to do for the first time, failure is often one of the first steps we must endure on the path to personal or professional victory.

This week I re-read a column of mine from six years ago.  It was written as an address to new graduates, and it encouraged them to learn how to fail.  Understanding and recognizing failure isn’t weakness.  In fact, it is how we get stronger. 

One of the examples used in that piece was that of strength training.  To build muscle, we first have to work the muscles we have to the point of failure.  The repair and rebuilding process is what makes them bigger and stronger.

It occurs to me that this lesson isn’t just for students and recent graduates.  Too many of us older folks haven’t been in a gym in a long time.  We’re content. We no longer feel the need to push ourselves to the point of failure.  Contentment doesn’t build strength or speed.  It generates fat. 

The parallels continue here in the two competing space companies.  One has become used to being a government contractor.  Even its commercial aircraft division has become mired in ineffective bureaucracy.  Bureaucrats can’t tolerate failure, because then it must be explained.  Too many believe if you don’t try until you’re certain you will succeed, you will never fail.  This is just procrastination in another form. 

SpaceX has a Silicon Valley mindset, to move fast and break things.  Those operating in this manner understand that failure will be frequent, but every failure is a learning opportunity.  For those on the cutting edge of the learning economy, failure isn’t just expected, but necessary.  It’s the only way to learn what you don’t know.

Failure is noticeable when people are paying attention. It can hurt when others point and laugh. 

Those of us who are the object of the ridicule rarely notice it’s from people who are content and sedentary, rarely willing to try anything new themselves.  Others failure is their entertainment.

Those pushing the envelope look at it differently.  Watch a video sometime of a test flight from SpaceX that goes horribly wrong.  Those in the control room cheer whenever one of their rockets blows up.  The bigger the explosion, the louder the cheers.

They’ve learned to celebrate failure, because they know they are learning from failure.

We all have choices to make in our everyday lives.  We can choose to accept the status quo.  It’s easy to do once our basic needs are met.  Why push ourselves when failure hurts, and doing nothing gets us the same thing we have, even if that means little more.

We can also choose to point and laugh at those who fail.  This can be in business, sports, or any other aspect of others’ lives we observe. 

Or, we can choose to celebrate failure, the right way.  Not by redefining failure as success, but acknowledging the shortcomings and embracing the knowledge needed for the next time we try.

That’s not a lessonfor the recent graduates.  That’s one for those of us who quit taking tests, quit keeping score, and too often, don’t want to push ourselves or encourage others to do the same.