Recovering from Failure


Ferdinand de Lesseps had an immense vision. In the 1880s this flamboyant Frenchman announced a plan to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by a sea-level canal through Panama. He was believable as a developer since he already completed a project for the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869. This skilled and well-connected promoter spoke with great confidence and his style attracted wealth and influence. Through private investment he raised the funds needed to attempt this vast project. He anticipated great success, but his effort would fail miserably leaving corruption and scandal in his wake.

David McCollough, in his history of the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas (1977), describes de Lesseps’ experience as follows:

“The extraordinary venture had lasted more than a decade. It had cost, according to the best estimates, 1,435,000,000 francs – about $287,000,000 – which was 1,000,000,000 francs more than the cost of the Suez Canal, far more in fact than had ever before been spent on any one peaceful undertaking of any kind. The number of lives lost, a subject that had been strangely avoided throughout the Affair, had not been determined, nor was it ever to be with certainty.”

“It had indeed been a blunder on such an inordinate scale, a failure of such overwhelming magnitude, its shock waves extending to so very many levels, that nobody knew quite what to make of it; and as time passed, the inclination was to dismiss it as the folly of one man . . . “ (p. 235)

Many factors were involved in this debacle, but it is clear that de Lesseps’ rhetorical audacity far exceeded his organizational capacity.

In the end the canal was completed by a clear understanding of the true challenges learned through collective experience. First, malaria and yellow fever took the lives of as many as 22,000 in the failed attempt. It was the study of disease and the discovery of mosquito-borne illness by scientists that paved the way for surviving the tropical environment. Second, it was the shared realization that the fundamental engineering challenge was not to build a canal, but a railroad system that would make the construction of a canal possible. Third, a vast infrastructure of support proved to be incredibly important and entire communities were built to sustain the well-being of the workforce for many years. Finally, collective reason prevailed with the acknowledgement that a sea-level waterway was simply not possible. Locks were constructed to lift ships through terrain that could only be mastered through technology. In the end, it would not be the vision of an individual, but the will of a nation, the United States of America, that would build the Panama Canal.

Generations have passed since de Lesseps’ tragic failure, but I wonder if there are still lessons for us today. What was once an issue for an individual or a family is now a question for the community. Local issues become regional issues, regional issues become national issues, and national issues become international issues. Complexity begets complexity.

As we anticipate our individual success, we have also come to understand more clearly in recent years that our experience of success depends on a collective effort – one that is increasingly global in nature. My health has something to do with the health of others around the world. My economic prosperity is coupled to the financial success of others who participate in commerce and trade. My security is closely connected to the security of others. My use of energy affects the environment for all. Increasingly it appears that global challenges will require global solutions.

Failure at the canal was also overcome by the interaction of academic and professional disciplines; science, technology, engineering, medicine, human services, organization and logistics all combined to make the canal project a success.

Perhaps there are clues for us today whenever we seek to recover from failure. The will of a nation animated through a collective effort and informed by a collaboration of ideas can accomplish far more than we might imagine.

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Recovering from Failure

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4 responses to “Recovering from Failure”

  1. Retired faculty member says:

    Most of us have experienced those little failures from which we have learned how to convert the minor episodes to a positive learning situation. But, the large failures, such as the initial attempt to build the Panama Canal, fortunately are not usually part of our life story, thank goodness.
    I’ve had the opportunity to work for a number of years with a group of bright, young professionals, most of whom have evidently never experienced failure in their lives and professions. Yet, my observation is that when they do encounter the occasional failure later in life, they have typically handled these uncomfortable situations well, and obviously have not allowed themselves be entrapped by an attitude of failure.
    One might ask where they have learned these skills to deal with failure. Are these values instilled in the home, are they skills learned in their educational experiences, or part of one’s cultural heritage?
    My guess is that we all possess the inherent capacity to deal with either failures or great successes without allowing them to become permanently damaging to our lives. It is apparent that most of us will work through our personal failures and working through the process, learn to value our adaptive capacity.
    It certainly helps to have colleagues and friends who assist one to deal with the bumps in the road as we encounter them.

  2. Rose Feldman alumni says:

    This is a great story, thank you for sharing it. I have to say, though, I do not agree with your title. You see, I teach a success-skills curriculum for middle and high schoolers, and one of the things I teach is that there is not such thing as failure. There is only giving-up. Failure is really just “feedback.”

    I believe this is a great example of how every adversity either makes us bitter or better. So, amidst such great adversity, we had medical, technological, and organizational advancements; and instead of sticking our feet in the mud and complaining about the mess, we tried again with our knew information and understanding.

    If your stipulation about our vast global connection is true, then there was no failure here. This was nothing but the road to success, in all of its trial and error.

  3. The Frankster says:

    Timing can be the critical factor. Charles Babbage had all the correct components for today’s computers in the mid 1800’s but the technology of the day did not match his vision. I don’t believe there is a player in the Baseball Hall of Fame who had more hits than outs.

    Success is a also construction of experiences. I’m reminded of the quote from Thomas Edison that gets commonly paraphrased to “I haven’t failed 3000 times, I now know 3000 ways in which to NOT make an incandescent light bulb.” We hypothesis and experiment. We each test we know more. It’s highly appropriate that the dedication marker outside the Vermeer Science Center contains this quotation from Isaac Newton “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

  4. David Timmer says:

    This may be an instance where the famous palindrome, “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!” doesn’t tell the whole story. De Lessep’s entrepreneurial spirit needed to be linked with the resources of a national government in order to succeed. I mention this because we seem to have entered a political climate in which the public side of public-private partnerships is widely pilloried as incompetent or irrelevant. Sometimes recovering from failure might mean acknowledging a role in our enterprises for the commonweal, and a concern for the common good. Just sayin’. . . .