Robots, Rockets, and the Rewards of Perseverance
‘I was elated, ecstatic and extremely surprised that we were successful.” - Neil Armstrong
Last week the Peabody Essex Museum hosted a launch party for a VIS (Very Important Specimen) during its PEM/PM Take Back Summer Evening Party. The honored specimen was the famed HitchBOT, a Hitchhiking Robot who has hitched rides across Germany and Canada, vacationed in the Netherlands, and now plans to hitchhike across the United States. I got to meet the little guy, who was wearing the most on-point wellies I’d ever seen, and wish him luck on his grand adventure.
In addition to HitchBOT’s new adventure beginning, something else marvelous happened last week. After nine years of soaring through the solar system, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto (you know, the planet that was stripped of its title back in 2006, but will always be a planet in our hearts, except maybe not Neil deGrass Tyson's) and sent back to earth the first hi-res images of the previously uncharted world in the far away Kuiper Belt.
And then, topping it all off is that today is the 46th anniversary of the first lunar landing. This, and the subsequent 5 Apollo missions to follow, may have been first and last time that humans have ever stepped foot on another world to date, but we are far from being done with the stars. The memory of this gives me hope, and the evidence of current experiments like HitchBOT and New Horizons gives me even more liberty to dream of what the brightest minds of our time will do next.
Humanity may have dealt with some major setbacks in its time, but as a whole we don’t let anything stop us for long. We are incredibly talented in our collective ability to Persevere.
Although, many times, we get in our own way.
Three Feet from Gold
There’s a common theme to all of the success stories I’ve heard during my lifetime, whether it’s being told by a CEO, professional athlete, or cancer survivor. It’s that there were many many times where things seemed bleak, or even impossible, and the prospect of going on was simply too much to bear. These individuals were faced with a choice, they could give up and never know what would have happened had they kept trying, or they could press onward.
Now HitchBot may not personally understand his own limits, or realize that what he’s doing requires bravery. But I bet you that his creators do. I bet that when they first came up with the idea there was a moment where they thought it could never work. Lucky for us they ignored that thought. They did something many people only dream of doing.
Also, if any group of individuals truly understands the rewards of perseverance, it’s NASA. We can celebrate now the achievements of the Apollo missions, and triumph in the efforts of New Horizons, but what isn’t so readily available is the amount of failure it took to have those immense successes. Over the last century, many of their experiments would meet with less than positive outcomes – crashing into the desert, falling into the ocean, or exploding on the launchpad or before it left the atmosphere. Yet, neither these events, nor significant government funding drops for the space programs, have been enough for NASA to give up. If anything, the group is more determined than ever.
And why is that? Is it because discovering new worlds is a powerful motivator? Yes, but that’s only part of it. What NASA has latched onto is the fact that they are creating a legacy that is far greater than the sum of their failures. What they are doing is so significant to them, that failure is not enough of a deterrent. It is the doing that matters, and the results are just icing. The enticing bits, really, are the wealth of possibilities.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the upcomingbook Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, gave a TED talk in 2014 called “Success, Failure, and the Drive to Keep Creating” said something rather profound:
“Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service, it might be raising corgis, I don't know, your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.”
Although Elizabeth Gilbert says “more than you love yourself,” what she’s really saying is a bit more poignant than that. Ultimately, your home, the thing that you should be doing, is the thing that overrides your fear of failure and, more importantly, your need to protect yourself from that failure. It’s not the results that ultimately matter, it’s what you’re doing that matters, and whatever your “home” is, you should keep doing it. You shouldn’t let failure stand in your way.
When I was 16, training to be a professional athlete, I was working with a tennis coach in Sarasota Florida who was more guru than sports instructor. His name is Eric Tate. Many days, seeing that actually training wasn’t the best thing for my emotional well-being, he would insist that we sit on the side of the court and just talk things through. He was one of the few people in that position to ever show me authentic kindness, and it’s no real surprise that his words stuck with me.
One afternoon he told me a story that he had read in Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich, which I wouldn’t read myself for a few years later. As the story goes, a man had moved to California during the Gold Rush, hoping to strike it rich. That man was R.U. Harby. Harby had all the equipment he needed, and a staked claim with a promising vein of ore. After a successful few months of digging, the vein suddenly ran dry. They attempted to dig for a short while further before giving up entirely out of frustration. They eventually sold the claim, and the man who took over their spot found gold a mere three feet from where Harby had given up. The man made millions.
Now, when I first heard this I admittedly put on my skeptic face. Sometimes, things really aren’t worth your effort. Sometimes, you can dig for 3, 12, or 5000 feet and never find what you’re looking for. But now that I’m older I understand something fundamental: if you love the act of digging, then finding gold may become inconsequential. However, if you continue to dig, then some degree of success will be inevitable.
Essentially, don’t do things because you want what those things will eventually bring you. Do something because you’d rather do it than do anything else. Do it and don’t give it up, and you’ll find the success you crave. It may take months, years even. Your inbox may fill up with rejection letters or you may be stuck serving coffee to the people whose jobs you want, but eventually you’ll get a letter that says “yes, we’re interested” or an opportunity for an interview.
For me, that thing that’s more important than my compulsion to protect myself from failure is the creative process. A day where I don’t create something – whether it’s a blog post full of random references, a video for a client, or a photograph featuring a guinea pig in costume – is a pointless day. I don’t do the things that I do because they make money, I do them because they bring me joy, and by some great fortune sometimes people pay me to do these things. I would rather be doing this and live off noodles than work somewhere with a salary and 401k that didn’t give me the opportunity to be creative.
The trade off is that every day becomes an act of perseverance. I’ve had to train myself to believe that the only way to go is forward, and to not let any piece of failure send me careening off course. The good news is the longer I do it, the more times I put one foot in front of the other in my chosen direction, the easier it gets. At any rate, I no longer have to exclusively live off noodles (although I’ve learned to love them). Rejection is no longer quite as frustrating either, especially now that people are telling me “no” only slightly more than they tell me “yes,” which is quite an improvement over years past.
It will be the same for you. If you keep going, you will see your share of failure, I can promise you that, but you’ll also see your share of success. That is just how it works.
This may seem a bit trite, a bit too cliché, but the predictions are accurate. I look at myself and where I was when I started all this nearly four years ago (about the time when New Horizons was peacefully passing through Saturn’s orbit) as an aimless grad student with no real career prospects. I’ve come a long way, and I may never “strike gold” in the Harby sense, but I’m able to do what I want to do and create the things I want to create. I will keep doing so for as long as I can.
So, no matter where you are at in your journey, whether you are just getting started, or you’ve been at it for years, I hope that you love it, I hope that you keep at it, and I hope that failure of any kind doesn’t throw you off track. I’m excited to see what you’re going to do next. © 2015 Joey Phoenix, INC.