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From The Fall Of Failure, Success Can Take Flight

Sep 8, 2013
Originally published on September 8, 2013 6:26 pm

Diana Nyad's successful swim from Cuba to Key West on Monday was made all the sweeter because she had tried — and failed — four times before.

She learned you should "never, ever give up," but she also learned some practical lessons to help beat the elements in those earlier attempts. Out of failure, she innovated. And out of innovation, she succeeded.

"In my interviews with explorers, over and over again, so many of them said, really, the only failure that counts is dying," says National Geographic staff writer, Hannah Bloch, wrote about failure for the September issue of the magazine.

Up And Away

Bloch tells All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden about the 19th-century Swedish patent clerk who became a polar aeronaut and national hero, Salomon August Andrée.

"This was an era when the arctic and the North Pole were really unchartered territory. And many people had tried to reach the North Pole overland and had died trying," Bloch says.

To circumvent the challenges of others, Andrée took a completely different path: He decided to fly there in a hydrogen balloon. The idea was so bold that he even convinced the King of Sweden and Alfred Nobel to back his project. He and a small crew took flight on July 11, 1897.

They never made it to the North Pole; their remains were discovered some three decades later. The tuxedo he'd brought along to wear on his triumphant return remained packed away, unused.

But their failure served as motivation for many other polar aeronauts. Italian explorer Umberto Nobile eventually made the first successful trip in 1926. He, too, traveled by air, but flew a dirigible instead of a hydrogen balloon.

Coming Back From The Edge

It took others' persistence to learn from Andrée's mistakes, just as he had learned from those before him. Some risk-takers, though, are fortunate enough to learn from their own failures.

American anthropologist primatologist Agustin Fuentes, for example, changed the course of his career after getting lost in the jungles of Borneo.

Fuentes had been trekking deep into the jungle to catch a glimpse of the elusive maroon leaf monkey when he realized he was in trouble. Being lost was dangerous in a region full of leopards and venomous snakes.

"I was actually helped out of the jungle by an orangutan who came down, got me, and walked me back into camp," he said in a Google+ Hangout sponsored by National Geographic.

"But the punch line here is that early in my career, I wanted to study those things on the edge, the last remaining members of a species or something like that," Fuentes says. "I failed, so my experience there gave me the hint that ... maybe what you should be looking at is not these last few things living out there, but those primates that do OK with people."

Since then, Fuentes has made a successful career researching a much less timid primate: the macaque.

"Think about what the world would look like if there was no such thing as failure," National Geographic's Bloch says. "What would be the point of doing anything? I think failure gives it what gives success its meaning."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It was only this past Monday, you may recall, that the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. It was a stunning success for the 64-year-old swimmer, and it was made all the sweeter because she had tried and failed four times before.

DIANA NYAD: We should never ever give up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LYDEN: Inspirational. But she also learned some practical lessons from the earlier attempts. This time, she used a full-body suit and a mask to protect from jelly fish stings. Out of failure, she innovated. And out of innovation, she succeeded.

HANNAH BLOCH: In my interviews with explorers, so many of them said, really, the only failure that counts is dying.

LYDEN: That's National Geographic staff writer Hannah Bloch. She looked into the value of failure in the September issue of the magazine. And since this is National Geographic, she focused on adventurers and explorers, like the Swede Salomon August Andree. Andree was a humble patent clerk at the end of the 19th century. He was also a tinkerer, a risk taker, someone unafraid to try.

BLOCH: This was an era when the Arctic and the North Pole were really uncharted territory. And many people had tried to reach the North Pole by going overland. And they had died trying.

LYDEN: Andree saw these failures, and he thought he might have just the answer.

BLOCH: Salomon Andree just had this very bold, optimistic idea that he could basically circumvent a lot of the difficulties that others had encountered by going overland by going in a hydrogen balloon.

LYDEN: He convinced the king of Sweden and Alfred Nobel to back him. And on July 11, 1897, he and a small crew took flight.

BLOCH: They had flown for 65 and a half hours, and they landed on the ice about 298 miles south of the North Pole.

LYDEN: It turned out to be a fatal error. Their remains were discovered some three decades later along with a tuxedo which Andree had brought along to wear on his triumphant return. But his failure was an inspiration to many other polar aeronauts, for example, the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile, who made the trip in 1926. He didn't use a hydrogen balloon, however. Now, let's turn to another explorer and go somewhere a little bit warmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONKEYS SCREECHING)

LYDEN: You hear that? Listen closely. It's a jungle on the island of Borneo, and the faint rustling in the background is a maroon leaf monkey jumping from branch to branch high up in the canopy. Many years ago, American primatologist Agustin Fuentes was trying to study the animals in Borneo. But they're shy monkeys, and Fuentes had to keep trekking deeper and deeper into the lush environment to get a closer peek.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AGUSTIN FUENTES: I got lost in the jungle and was actually helped by an orangutan who came down, got me and walked me back into camp. Early in my career, I wanted to study those things on the edge, the last remaining members of a species. It was really a lesson. I failed, so my experience there gave me the hint that, you know what, maybe what we should be looking at is not these last few things living out there, but those primates that do OK with people.

LYDEN: Since then, Fuentes has made a successful career as a macaque researcher, a primate that is anything but shy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACAQUE MONKEYS)

BLOCH: Think about what the world would look like if there was no such thing as failure. What would be the point in doing anything? I think failure is what gives success its meaning.

LYDEN: Diana Nyad would agree with that, and so would Umberto Nobile, the guy who did fly to the North Pole in a dirigible. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.