Failure Need Not Be Fatal

The Sinking of the Vasa by Andrew Howat

The Sinking of the Vasa by Andrew Howat

On 10 August 1628, the beaches around Stockholm were filled with spectators eager to watch the maiden voyage of the Vasa, the mightiest battleship ever built. The complete crew of the Vasa was about 450 men, of whom 300 were soldiers.

The Vasa was not the largest ship built in this period, nor did she have the most cannons. What made her perhaps the most powerful warship in the world up to that time was her broadside, the combined weight of the shot that could be fired from one side of the ship, more than 600 pounds in all. She was a truly fearsome machine of war!

On that August day some 387 years ago, the Vasa set her massive sails, fired a salute and made her way into the harbor. But after only a few minutes of sailing, the ship began to heel over. She righted herself slightly and then heeled over again. Then, to everyone’s horror and disbelief, the mighty warship suddenly sank, killing about fifty of the 150 people aboard.

It sank! The mightiest battleship ever built sank!

Why did the Vasa sink? Deep down in the Vasa, several tons of stone were stored as ballast to give the ship stability, but it was not enough to counterweight the guns, the upper hull, masts and sails of the ship. The plans used for building the Vasa were intended for small ships with only one gun deck. Because the Vasa had two gun decks with heavy artillery higher on the ship than ever before, the standard calculations did not apply. When the ship began to heel over, water poured through the open lower gun ports and quickly sank the ship. The Vasa saga was by almost any criteria an utter and colossal failure.

But that is not the end of the story of the battleship Vasa.

The Vasa lay in the shallow waters of Stockholm harbor for centuries.  Early attempts to salvage it remained fruitless.  The wreck was located in 1956 and finally raised in 1961, a full 333 years after the Vasa sank.

Usually, organisms such as worms eat away the wood of ships over time but not so the  Vasa.  It remained in the same condition in which it sank, due to the inhospitable waters off Stockholm.  The adverse environment preserved the Vasa so well that it was even able to float with its gun-ports sealed and after water and mud were pumped out of the hull!

Vasa Museum

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm

The Vasa is now on display in Stockholm and housed in a dedicated museum specially built for it.  Modern day Swedish children can see this ancient vessel that was supposed to be the most glorious warship of its day, but instead it became the biggest failure of its day. The museum is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions. It is rather remarkable that there is such a museum – a museum to failure; a museum that celebrates the glory of the grandest battleship that never saw a battle.

I tell the story of the Vasa because our society has become so success-oriented that we have very little tolerance for failure. But I am convinced that if we live long enough and attempt much, we will run up against failure. You can take that to the bank. We know from experience that failure is hard to cope with in a world like ours. When we fail at something, most of us think of it as the ultimate and irreversible tragedy of all time, but people fail every day.

In his book A Theology of Failure, John Narrone writes, “A theology which takes failure seriously does not encourage fatalism, passivity, indifference to the world; rather it affirms that the man who cannot freely lay down his life is one whose ideals and values are already compromised.”

Failure can often lead to better things. The failure of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly. Our failures can be the door to a new success. John James Audubon will be forever associated with the magnificent paintings that he made of the birds of North America. No one else has so accurately painted the birds and the natural environment in which they are found. Such art might never have happened had Audubon not been a failure in business! In 1808, he opened a store in Louisville, Kentucky. It was after he went bankrupt in 1819 that he began traveling and painting birds. We are all richer because of his business failure.

Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive.” As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was just an invention with 1,000 steps.”

In his address delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, on 23 April 1910, Theodore Roosevelt remarked: “It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better.

“The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Amen to that.

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