I recently watched a TED talk by Regina Dugan, the director of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). She leads a group of people whose job, simply put, is to do the impossible. They work on things like creating airplanes that can fly at Mach 20, which would get you coast-to-coast in less than 12 minutes. Their longest flight to date has been about 3 minutes. After that, the thing keeps burning up.
She challenged us with that question we’ve all heard so many times we’ve become hardened to it: ”What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” If we can get over our cynicism for a moment, we’ll find it’s a useful question, because it brings our fear of failure front and center where we can deal with it.
“Failure is part of creating,” Ms. Dugan said. “We cannot fear failure and create new and amazing things.” She quoted Georges Clemenceau: “Life gets interesting if you fail, because it means we’ve surpassed ourselves.”
“We’ve surpassed ourselves.” Yes. We haven’t overcome external obstacles – we’ve challenged the barriers inside of us, such as how we think and what we believe. To do the impossible, we have to believe that maybe it – whatever the “it” in question might be – isn’t impossible after all. Why is believing that so hard for us? Because we’re afraid to fail.
What if we refuse to think that way? What if instead we follow DARPA’s example? They can’t believe in failure, otherwise they’d never get anything done. No, check that, they’d never get anything started. They must accept failure as an essential part of their work. That’s the only way they can find out for themselves what truly is and isn’t “impossible.”
Which is why they can create things like a mechanical surveillance hummingbird that weighs less than a AA battery and is equipped with a camera. (“The world’s first hummingbird pilot” flew it onstage during Ms. Dugan’s talk.)
Walt Disney said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” He also said, “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” I guess he, too, knew something about dealing with failure.
[to be continued]