Bill Whittle: My Friend Failure

A Truth Revolt video.

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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