The Power of Failure

“Failure is not an option.” Ed Harris in the movie, “Apollo 13”

Sorry Ed, but it turns out failure not only IS an option, sometimes it seems to be almost a prerequisite to success.

I got four books for Christmas. One was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” which is so good I can’t even begin to tell you. I mentioned it before, when I had just started reading it. I finished it a couple of weeks later and it was every bit as good as the first chapters suggested. Great book, beautifully written, easily the best book I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and I read a lot. “Born to Run” is deeply personal and moving, yet sometimes hilarious.

One of my favorite passages is when, as a high school student, he rounded up a couple of other friends who could play a little and formed a band. After their first big gig – an unqualified disaster – the other members got together and voted him out of the band he had formed.

Wouldn’t you love to get those guys together now and ask, “How does it feel to be the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from a band?”

I’m now reading Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, who for almost 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s was “the most trusted man in America” as anchor of the CBS Evening News. In this – shall we say? – strained political climate, it seemed appropriate to revisit a time when the media were not only trusted, but some of its members were revered. Cronkite, you may recall, was known as “Uncle Walter” to a devoted public. If Cronkite said it, you could take it to the bank.

In one of his first jobs in the 1930s, Cronkite was the news announcer for Kansas City radio station KCMO. In fact, he was essentially the entire news staff. One day the station owner rushed to Cronkite’s desk with a scoop. The owner’s wife had just called to say City Hall was on fire and three firefighters had been killed. He ordered Cronkite to get on the air right away to issue a news bulletin.

Cronkite reached for the phone, to the owner’s consternation. “What are you doing?” “I have to make some calls and verify it.” “Are you calling my wife a liar?” Of course not,” Cronkite said, but he pleaded the need to verify the report and get more details.

The owner fired Cronkite and went on the air himself with the breathless report of K.C.’s City Hall burning down, with three firefighters plummeting to their deaths. And of course, it turned out to be completely false. There had been a small fire in City Hall, easily extinguished. Nobody injured, let alone killed.

When Cronkite died in 2009, a blogger wrote a piece titled “KCMO: Stupid Enough to Fire Cronkite; Downhill Ever Since.”

Another of the books I received for Christmas was “The Daily Show: The Book.” It’s a conversational, chronological history of the Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s 16-year run. And of course he wasn’t fired from the gig. But as he points out in the foreword, his career until then hadn’t been exactly overwhelming.

“I was a 35-year-old New York City standup comic with a canceled talk show, an unproduced screenplay, an unpublished book of essays, and two upcoming roles in Independent Films critics would almost unanimously hail as ‘speaking parts.'”

So the common thread between the stories of these three disparate men is early failure. And of course, there’s a lot more such stories. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime, but he’s now considered, if not the most important modern painter, certainly one of them. Erle Stanley Gardner received a rejection telling him not only was his story bad but he should never again be allowed to write in the English language. The story was, of course, the first Perry Mason mystery. Tom Clancy’s first novel was rejected by 26 publishers before it became the No. 1 bestseller “The Hunt for Red October,” leading to a publishing success story that continues today, with a new book on the lists despite the fact that Clancy’s been dead three and a half years.

Such stories are legion, especially in the writing world where we seem to wear our rejections like badges of honor. You’re nobody ’til somebody tells you you stink.

In each of those three books – Springsteen, Cronkite and Stewart – the key was not the failure but what they did with it.

Springsteen was brutally honest with himself, both as an artist and a person. He knew where he wanted to go with his music, and he cold-bloodedly looked at his strengths and weaknesses, then did what he had to do to improve until he not only was able to make a living as a musician, but become one of the most important musicians of the last 40 years. In his personal life, at the prodding and insistence of his wife, he went into therapy and confronted the ghosts of his childhood that were standing in the way of his establishing meaningful relationships, of being the father he wanted to be. He spent years looking for a way to forge a loving relationship with the father he hated (and didn’t realize for many years that he had hated.) He turned himself into who he wanted to become by hard work and unflinching self-honesty.

There were a lot of people who looked for success in the burgeoning field of radio in the 1930s. Cronkite was one of the ones who made it – and you could argue he made it farther than anyone – by adhering to high ethical standards that he didn’t compromise for the sake of a job or a short-term gain. He also worked at his craft. He taught himself to speak in an easy, conversational style instead of the stereotypical staccato burst of the radio announcers of the day. He forced himself to read the news at 124 words a minute, while the average American speaks at about 165. That allowed listeners to really hear him, and to let the words come through so they could be comprehended. He was the master of the pause, not babbling inanely but allowing the moment to speak for itself.

And Stewart was simply never satisfied. When he took over “The Daily Show” it was already somewhat successful, and the writing staff made it very clear to him that no little failed MTV host was going to tell them how to do it. They were furious that he had his own ideas. So over the first couple of years there were fights and scenes until he was able to mold the show into something that fit , his sensibility. He never intended to create a cultural touchstone, never dreamed that someday he would be compared to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. He just wanted the show give him a chance to say what he wanted to say, to not be canceled too early in the run, and to be funny.

And funny is serious business. It’s hard work. You don’t just go out for 22 minutes a night, four nights a week, and yuk it up. You have to have a point of view. Most days, after the 4 p.m. rehearsal, Stewart, the head writer and one or two others would retire to a small room behind the set and rewrite the show in the hour before they actually filmed it. Sometimes it would just be tweaks. More often than not, they would rewrite the entire show! Because it wasn’t enough for it to be good, it had to be as good as it could be. It had to mean something.

There are thousands, maybe millions, of stories of people turning failure into success, people who don’t allow a roadblock to become the end of the line, a dead end. They know what they want, and aren’t afraid to pick themselves up, learn their lessons and keep going until, by dint of hard work, they achieve their goal or surpass it.

Thomas Edison famously said, when trying to perfect the incandescent light bulb, that he hadn’t failed. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Being honest with yourself, recognizing what didn’t work and why, is part of charting the path to success. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”