The Failure Show

Feb 19, 2016

There are winners and there are losers, victorious success stories, and epic fails - and today show is all about the latter. 

From sports to space, from politics to parenting, we explore our cultural obsession with failure and how we humans process failure. Is it a necessary path to success, or something to avoid at all costs? 

Professional Failure

We start with a story from Chicago and a man who attempted to put on a show of epic proportions, a grand finale of the summer festival season of 2014.

The marquee event of The Great Chicago Fire Festival was to be a dramatic remembrance of the historic Chicago fire of 1871—which leveled the city and led to its eventual rebirth--three close to life-size model Victorian houses constructed in the middle of the Chicago River would go up in flames in front of over 30,000 anxious onlookers. 

Jim Lasko was the Executive Artistic Director of Redmoon and tells the story of the fire that, well, wasn’t

Redmoon closed for business on December 21st, 2015 after 25 years of making art in the city of Chicago. They successfully created a model inferno at The Great Chicago Fire Festival in September of 2015. 

Related: "Flaming Out in a Very Public Way"

Failure as Comedy

Among policy makers, MBA programs, and tech start-ups, “Fail fast and fail often” has become a mantra, a way to encourage risk. Failure can define a person, or it can be the last little push that leads to greatness. It can also be hilarious.

Apparently, there's some kind of innate need for schadenfreude. We love watching other people fail. -Brady Carlson

Warning: Some of this video is definitely NSFW

That must be the appeal of the internet phenomenon of the “Epic Fail Video”. YouTube is littered with compilations of people falling, flubbing and failing. NHPR’s Weekend Edition host Brady Carlson sat down in front of a computer with Virginia while Executive Producer Maureen McMurray queued up a montage of epic fails to try and figure out the allure and origins of the fail video. 

The Bifurcated Nature of Failure

While we were planning this show, the Word of Mouth team talked a lot about competing narratives we all seem to carry about failure. One is that it’s necessary and positive, a good thing. Because after all, some of the best success stories are preceded by epic fails.

A few families in the community had said, 'No no no, there isn't any room for failure. And we're not interested in teaching our kids that you can relax'. -Jessica Lahey

 But the other is that failure is a sign of weakness, incompetence, a lack of will. We discussed the bifurcated nature of failure with two guests:

Jessica Lahey, a teacher, New York Times columnist and author of The Gift of Failure.

Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s podcast The Gist  and a frequent contributor to NPR. 

Failure is Always/Never an Option

Hoverboard fails, sports fumbles, and slips of the tongue on-air, in front of millions, can be demoralizing and funny, but in space the stakes are a bit higher. 

The Apollo 13 manned mission to the moon was almost a national tragedy.

After an oxygen tank exploded, the moon landing was scrapped and ground control at NASA scrambled to figure out how to get the astronauts back to earth as failures began piling up. 

The movie Apollo 13 is the source of a very famous quote about failure.

We've never lost an American in space; we're sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option. -Actor Ed Harris as NASA flight director Gene Krantz.

Inspiring as those lines are, the truth is that failure, in some form or another, is always an option. Things go wrong, especially in outer space, which is exactly why there is a test called the “Kobayashi Maru”.

Janet Stemwedel, Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University, thinks Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, where the Kobayashi Maru is first referenced, is the pinnacle of the Star Trek franchise.

The Kobayashi Maru is a no-win test, meant to train a crew by subjecting them to a number of fictional scenarios. NASA actually uses these kinds of simulations to train real-life astronauts. In these scenarios, failure is just an option, it’s the only option. 

After the simulation has ended, the real test begins. What do you do after such a crushing defeat, a failure of epic proportions? Can a test designed to prepare a person for failure really deliver? Or is the Kobayashi Maru just a sadistic experiment with dubious real world applications?

I don't want to say that we want to fail, but we want to push our people to the very edge of their ability to keep up. -Chris Cassidy

Senior Producer Taylor Quimby spoke with Chris Cassidy, former Navy SEAL, and an astronaut who has spent more than 180 days in space, and is currently serving as NASA’s chief astronaut about no-win scenarios.

Equipment Failure

And we close with a failure that still haunts our host Virginia Prescott to this day. We are radio people which means getting good sound is sort of the point of our job. Virginia retells a story of lost sound so cringe-worthy, that even if you've never operated a portable sound recording device you'll stil feel the pain.