Bill Whittle: My Friend Failure

Bill Whittle talks about our inalienable right to fail our way to happiness. See the video and transcript below:



Hi everybody. I’m Bill Whittle and this is the Firewall.

When I was 10, I met a lifelong friend named Steve. That was back during sleepover age, so one morning I got a bowl of imitation Froot Loops in a bowl of what looked and tasted like grey water, which they explained was powdered milk. Their parents had sat the kids down and given them a choice: crappy food and a decent house, or decent food and a crappy house. They didn’t have enough money for both.

Steve’s dad was a Geology professor. And one day, he and his partner came up with a Carbon 14 dating procedure that quicker, cheaper and more accurate. All three. So they took it to the University and offered to partner with them as a business.

And they failed. The University said no. And facing that failure, this tenured professor, struggling to feed a family of six, quit his teaching position and started a company which for a while did about 94% of all of the C-14 dating done in the entire world. He became a multi-millionaire. He hired geology grad students who would also be facing lifetimes of powdered milk, tied their compensation to revenues, and now they are millionaires too.

When Thomas Jefferson came back with his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin and Adams and all the other Founders must have been amazed: Life – yes. Liberty – obviously. But the pursuit of happiness? That wasn’t just revolutionary – it was transcendent.

See, Jefferson knew you didn’t have a right to happiness – who can guarantee that? But he had a vision of place that didn’t guarantee the right to be happy, but the right – the inalienable right — to try to be. What Jefferson guaranteed in the Declaration was not the certainty of success but the guaranteed opportunity to fail.

For example, two bicycle mechanics in Ohio decided they wanted to build a flying machine. They didn’t just go out there and stat flapping canvass wings: they researched the latest data on air pressure, and armed with that information they set out to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina… Not with a flying machine, but with a glider.

But the glider didn’t work. It wasn’t flying nearly as well as it should have. They checked their numbers against the best data of the day – again and again and again – until finally these two practical men decided the only answer was that the data must be wrong.

They failed. They went back to Ohio, dejected. They didn’t quit, but they didn’t just come back with a bigger glider, either. Methodically, and carefully, and frugally, and anonymously, they built something the world had never seen before: the first wind tunnel. What they were really building was a foundation. Once they had accurate air pressure data the rest would be just math.

And on December 17th, 1903 at Kill Devil Hill mathematics became mythology. And because they were individuals, using their own money, they were allowed to fail. They had made failure their friend. They learned from failure. Meanwhile, the simultaneous, government-sponsored Langley aerodrome project – a massive undertaking with an incredible-for-the-time budget of $50,000 – was too big to fail and kept going splash. Into. The Potomac. River.

Some time later, two guys named Steve had an idea for a computer that everyone could use. IBM turned them down flat, and their dream was shattered. Thank God, because if they had succeeded, we’d have never heard of them, and I wouldn’t have one of these and neither would you.

The problem is, it’s getting harder to fail in America. The founders of Apple, Amazon, Google – all of them say they could never get started in America today due to regulations gumming up our God-given Right to Fail.

And worse then that, the self esteem movement means that kids don’t even get to keep score playing Little League baseball. If you can’t survive failure on a baseball diamond at 10, you’re not likely to give it a try with a business plan at 30. Are you?

I have history of failure. Back in 1979 my friend the Geology professor put up $6000 into that company so we could make three movies. One was a Student Academy Award Regional finalist, but we didn’t sell anything and he lost every penny. Catastrophic failure. And then, several years later, he backed me again – and lost every penny – again — and then, years after that, he did it again. Only this time, here I am, a product not only of the failures I endured, but the ones he endured that made mine possible. You’d have never heard of me without him.

Failure, hardship and setbacks are our companions on the roadway life. We must make them our friends, or they will be our mortal enemies. We can learn from what failure has to teach us, or we can go hide from them in a ditch for the rest of our lives.

I’ve lived in a ditch. It sucks. Get out there and fall down.

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  • Bellerophons_Revenge

    This is the single most important article on Frontpagemag.

    Thomas Edison was history’s greatest failure having failed to produce a viable electric light after thousands of attempts. When told that after so many failures that he was no farther along than when he started Edison replied “What to you mean ‘no farther along’, I know thousand of things that don’t work”.

    For Edison, knowledge was the key to success and failure was the key to knowledge. His remark was not a wisecrack, it was the essential spirit of Edison.

    A culture averse to failure cannot possibly persevere to success.

    • MorganValerioyse321

      My Uncle
      Joshua just got an almost new white Kia Rio Hatchback only from working
      part-time off a home computer. try this R­e­x­1­0­.­C­O­M­

      • Wolfthatknowsall

        Flagged as off-topic …

    • Fritz

      Yes, and to further things along, he bought the rights to an incandescent electric lamp, with a carbon filament, invented by a pair from Toronto named Watson and Evans in 1874. They held the patent, could not get any financial backing, and sold their American patent to Edison for $5000 I know that it does not fit with the template of American folklore surrounding Edison but it happens to be a fact.

      • Bellerophons_Revenge

        See my previous post to understand why Edison’s “folklore” is more accurate than the Canadian, British and German versions of who really invented the electric light.

    • Fritz

      Sorry, it wasn’t Watson and Evans, it was Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, Woodward and Evans were granted a U.S patent on their lightbulb in 1876, and sold it to Edison in 1879. The main difference between Edison’s lightbulb and the Woodward and Evans lightbulb, was the envelope of the earlier lamp was nitrogen filled whereas Edison’s lamp employed a vacuum.

      • Bellerophons_Revenge

        There’s a lot to know about electric lights. The Woodward/Evans light was basically useless because it had a low resistance. The meant that it had either be wired in series or required a low voltage and high current to illuminate. Wired in series it would be like the string of Christmas lights, when one failed they all go out. If operated at high current it meant that power distribution would require large, unwieldy cables or would suffer too great losses in transmission to make it economical to power them.

        Complicating the problem even more was the fact that high current generators require heavy gauge copper and hence result in heavy armatures which, when spinning at high speeds, place enormous stress on the bearings. The high currents also generate great heat which needs to be conducted away from the windings. The engineering problem of an electric light wasn’t merely to produce light. You need a way to power those lights economically.

        The most important aspect of Edison’s electric light wasn’t that it worked. There were many lights that “worked”. The real problem was to design the entire generating and distribution system. He understood that to make an economically successful light bulb he would have to make one that had a high electrical resistance. Woodward and Evans may have succeeded in producing a long lasting bulb but the thick filament made their invention impractical.

        The reason that Woodward and Evans couldn’t get backing was almost certainly because they had not developed a way to power their lights.

        • Wolfthatknowsall

          Interesting bit of history …

  • HiPlainsDrifter

    Mistakes, defeat, and failure are part of the learning process….
    It always helps entrepreneurs to succeed when there is demand, freedom, and opportunity in the current business cycle to absorb mistakes, paving the way with optimism, can-do spirit, and American exceptionalism…

    Most all lacking right now….(unless you are very lucky…)

  • liz


  • r3VOLution is not republican

    Hmmmm… let’s put that “advice” to the test…

    2012 Presidential “election” choices:
    1. Subsidized “success” Barack Obama
    2. Subsidized “success” Mitt Romney
    3. Subsidized “success” Newt Gingrich
    4. Subsidized “success” Michelle Bachmann
    5. Subsidized “success” Rick Santorum
    6. Subsidized “success” Rick Perry
    7. Freedom to fail Ron Paul

    REPUBLICAN Whittle,
    Who did YOU support?

    • Kenneth James Abbott

      I dunno about him, but I supported Herman Cain. Maybe Ron Paul did better in the business world, but I’d prefer a president who isn’t insane.

      • r3VOLution is not republican

        1. Please cite Ron Paul’s “insanity”

        2. FAKE-TEA GOPer Herman Cain:
        PRIVATE Federal Reserve Chief
        Supported Romney in 08
        Supported TARP (that ignited the Tea Party)
        Supports the unconstitutional “Patriot” Act
        Chilean collectivist retirement (unconstitutional in America)
        Bizarrely believes there can be state-level gun control
        Dismissed any housing bubble… right before it burst
        Dismissed any financial collapse… right before 2008
        The dangerous, misleading 9’s
        Unconstitutional (equal protection of the law) favoritism of Orwellian “Opportunity Zones”
        Supports a collective North America, including Central America and the Caribbean
        Notorious flip-flopper and offering dishonest gibberish answers to questions he later ACKNOWLEDGES HE KNEW NOTHING ABOUT

        • sendtheclunkerbacktochicago

          Ron Paul PRETENDS to be in love with the U.S. Constitution and was always yelling it from the roof tops. When it came time to tear into the biggest scam against the Constitution he “pretends” to love by acknowledging that Barack Hussein Obama was not a “natural born Citizen” and when he was asked to help expose the fraudulent activity that Obama used in his rise to power he put his Constitutional tail between his legs and scampered off like the rest of Congress. He had many opportunities to expose Obama on the campaign trail and he did NOTHING. He may not be “insane” but he punked out when it came time to expose this Fraud in Chief. Shame on him and all those guys you mention above. They are all COWARDS, the ;only true heroes in this nightmare we are living through are the BIRTHERS, especially Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his many fine patriot investigators who have not given up on exposing this Mutt we call Commander in Chief.


      It seems very strange to lump Romney, Bachmann, Santorum, and maybe Perry in together as subsidized by somebody. Obama sure – by George Soros and other wealthy Leftists. As for Paul, he was a non-starter because of his nutty Libertarianism – crazy foreign policy etc. We need a Conservative, not a Libertarian, for President.

      • r3VOLution is not republican


        Can you CLEARLY EXPLAIN (A) “crazy foreign policy” (Ron Paul supports NONINTERVENTIONISM) and (B) “etc.”?

        • Wolfthatknowsall

          Can you clearly explain how someone is elected to the presidency without being subsidized in the hundreds of millions of dollars?

          Non-interventionism is clearly why the world is a much more dangerous place, today, than it was in 2008. The president does not have the cojones to intervene when the future of the United States is at stake.

          Please get over it. Ron Paul could never have won the nomination. Even if he had, he would never have won the election. Move on to a better candidate, for 2016.

          • r3VOLution is not republican

            1. Ron Paul was well on his way to becoming President. The only thing that stopped him was the CHEATING, LEFTIST republican party and it’s USEFUL IDIOT “better” evil voters.


            3. 2016? Third party!!!!!!!!!!!!!

          • Wolfthatknowsall

            Ron Paul never would have been nominated, much less elected. His foreign and military policy was designed for the 1920’s (and they didn’t work, then), not the 21st Century.

            I agree with your second point, in part.

            Third party? You just as well place the crown on Hillary’s brow …

          • r3VOLution is not republican

            Ron Paul’s NONINTERVENTIONIST, CONSTITUTIONAL foreign policy is designed for AMERICAN, ESPECIALLY RIGHT NOW, after republicans and democrats HAVE KILLED THOUSANDS OF AMERICANS FOR NOTHING.

            Republican party? You just as well place the crown on Hillary’s brow, SAME A YOU DID WITH OBAMA… TWICE.

          • Wolfthatknowsall

            Why the he!! are we arguing about Ron Paul? He is history. He will never be president, and he had no chance to be president. I think the guy could have won, if his POLICY POSITIONS on national defense hadn’t been straight out of the 1920’s, and his foreign policy was isolationist.

            I did not not support McCain, and my support for Romney was tepid, at best, but those were the only choices we had. If you wrote in “Ron Paul”, or didn’t vote, at all, you helped put Obama in the White House. If you voted for a third party candidate, you helped put Obama in the White House.

            We have to come together, support, and vote for the GOP candidates in 2016, or we will have Hitlery for President. My personal choice is Ted Cruz/Dr. Ben Carson as a ticket.

            So, the GOP didn’t nominate Ron Paul. Get your head out of the sand, stop whining, and help save our country …

        • NAHALKIDES

          I’m not going to go through it all here, but I did in this article: Libertarianism Minus Conservatism = Zero.

          • r3VOLution is not republican

            You won’t, because you can’t.

  • Matt Dickinson

    Bill Whittle makes good points but he always seems so angry

    • logdon

      Isn’t that the point?

    • stephencarter

      I’ve noticed that too. I think he’s truly horrified at what is overtaking the USA, and the malaise that afflicts 80%+ of the country. Americans are famously gung-ho when they’re going in a productive direction, but they’re equally impassioned when the direction is negative. Reagan almost single-handed turned America away from its 1980s malaise, largely created by the Left. I feel as Bill feels much of the time, and I’m Canadian, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. Plus I think it’s too late now for the USA to make a course correction. Now I think America subconsciously wants to fail and become a middle power, but will that work? I doubt it. Great powers can only shed their former role when a war separates the before from the after.

      • Matt Dickinson

        we’re all in this together

    • Bill #2

      To me, he seems not so angry as impatient. Without this feeling, you might be happy if someone else passed on his talks, or someone else acted on his talk. What he says needs to be passed on to others and actions taken – sometimes he calls for action, sometimes he describes something and leaves us to take the appropriate action.

    • Debbie G

      Wow, I feel just the opposite. I’d say he’s passionate without becoming angry.

  • logdon

    In other words success is a process of elimination and experience.

    Eliminate the unworkable and you’re on the way but if that experience is robbed by an ‘everyone must have prizes’ mindset the patently unworkable obtains the same value as the workable.

    Is it four or two legs good? It can’t be both but in the minds of the fantasists it is what they make it and there’s the problem.

    We have entered the age of the ‘narrative’, a set of rules devised by cultural marxists where the ‘narrative’ is truth not because it is true, but because they tell us it is.

    It has infected the USA,UN, EU where the levers of power have been captured by the Frankfurt crowd and in league with the petro-dollar clout of Saudi is rampaging its way across the world.

    That’s what’s going on here and unless stopped in its tracks will, via the camels nose of cultural Marxism enable their Islamist bedfellows unlimited access to the Dar-el Harb and bang, Western civilisation goes the way of Rome.


    While this is an important article, it’s emphasis on one aspect of experience – failure as a part of life – distracts from a more important point, namely that no one in government had the power to shut these men down. That is what’s no longer true today – government officials wield arbitrary power and can close you down for a hundred different reasons, many environmental, or require so many permits you just run out of money before you can sent your first model plane down the runway at Kitty Hawk.

    What’s missing today is freedom, meaning the freedom from arbitrary interference of government.

    • stephencarter

      It’s worse than this. Imagine if the guys who developed ‘fracking’ technology were getting started today. The government has probably instituted preemptive regulatory filters to shut down any such tech innovations of the future. So you have to go to a country that allows innovations in areas that don’t accord with the the strict worldview of the EPA, IRS, etc. ie. go to Canada. Probably 35-40% of US innovation historically happened in part in Canada, for diverse reasons. That number will probably increase as the USA becomes ever more hostile to new products, innovation, fairness, capitalism, and real democracy. Bureaucrats get power by saying no, or having endless lists of requirements to be ‘in compliance.’


        It’s a sad day when you have to go to socialist Canada to start a business, but perhaps that day has arrived under Obama.

      • Americana

        You might feel very differently if you could no longer drink your ground water without adding a significant water purification system to your home water system because you live in an area of the country where fracking chemicals have somehow percolated into the groundwater. There’s a reason why China is no longer being quite so complacent about its environmental travesties and those reasons are the same for the U.S. The U.S. began to strengthen its environmental awareness DECADES AGO when the first large-scale environmental degradation was detected at many places around the U.S. China is still experiencing the Wild West of capitalism where anything goes. Chinese businesses are poisoning our dogs and cats w/melamine in their foods and treats. Chinese businesses are poisoning baby formula. Chinese rice has arsenic that’s been absorbed into the rice grains because of the water used on the rice paddies and the soil in which the rice is grown.

        Environmental control over business is not “arbitrary interference
        of government.” It may be difficult to always arrive at the correct balance of environmental controls over business but there’s a reason why the U.S. has a massive number of SUPERFUND sites — sites that are dangerously polluted to the point where people aren’t allowed to live near them. These Superfund sites were created umpteen decades ago when we didn’t recognize how long it took for chemicals to degrade in the environment. What we did during America’s Wild West days and what we should be conscious of today are two different things.

  • HiPlainsDrifter

    Mistakes, defeat, and failure are part of the learning process….
    It always helps entrepreneurs to succeed when there is demand, freedom, and opportunity in the current business cycle to absorb mistakes, paving the way with optimism, can-do spirit, and American exceptionalism…

    Most all lacking right now….(unless you are very lucky…)
    A President that understands what makes America the last, best hope for the world, would go a long way (critical) toward getting US right-tracked again…