Get Back Up by Ben Thompson and Erik Slader
It was a hot summer day in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Orville and Wilbur Wright were about to show off a project that was over two years in the making. They’d tested designs, built blueprints, double-checked calculations, and built a machine with their bare hands in the burning heat of Kill Devil Hills that they hoped would do something that no person had ever done before – achieve human-powered flight. Excited by their discoveries and eager to show the world what they’d accomplished, the Wright Brothers called together the entire town, and invited all of their aviation heroes and pioneers to come see the event.
On that day, in front of all of Orville and Wilbur’s mentors, friends, family, and neighbors, Wilbur Wright climbed onto the wing of his flying machine. From the ground, Orville pulled the rope and lurched the craft forward off of the sand dune.
The plane fluttered up into the air, shook, and then immediately went into a nose dive, crashed, broke apart, and left Wilbur Wright sprawled out in a heap with the smashed remains of his failed airplane strewn around him.
As the assembled crowd laughed and jeered, the Wright Brothers hurriedly pieced their plane back together and tried to take off again.
The plane caught the wind wrong and actually sailed backwards about five feet before ungracefully crashing again.
Now for many of us, this would be the end of the story – you spend years pouring every ounce of your time, money, and energy into your life’s work, only for it to literally blow up in your face and leave you embarrassed, bloodied and humiliated in front of everyone you know. It’s soul-crushing, spectacular failure on the scale of those dreams where you somehow find yourself naked in Chemistry class. But that’s not what happened for the Wright Brothers. Instead of giving up, falling apart, and going home to eat ice cream in front of the saddest movie they could find on Netflix, these guys instead doubled-down, went back to their bike shop, and started designing something bigger and better. They weren’t going to dwell on their failures, beat themselves up for being incompetent, or let a bunch of talentless haters crush their spirit – they were going get back up, keep trying, push themselves even harder, and prove to the world that nothing could stop them. And you know what? They were right. Two years later, these same brothers built a vehicle so famous that it has its own room in the Smithsonian.
Rejection, failure, and fear stare every single one of us in the face nearly every single day – a constant reminder that we are never as good, as talented, as smart, or as attractive as we want to be. Whether its outright bullying, anxiety, depression, jealousy of other peoples’ successes, or even good-old imposter syndrome, there are so many factors in the world that all seem to be conspiring together to crush our souls on a daily basis. To remind us that we aren’t good enough, or that we’ll never achieve our goals or our dreams. It makes it so easy to want to just give up, shrug your shoulders, and belly-flop into bed while maintaining perfect synchronization with that one Adele album that’s just like twelve songs about being dumped.
And, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. Literally every human being on earth has suffered failure and rejection at some point. If you want to go rolling in the deep with your own one-man pity party, there’s nothing wrong with that. But here’s the thing: Human beings are resilient, tough creatures. When we trip over a broken sidewalk and face-plant the curb, we don’t just roll over and lay there until we bleed out or die of exposure.
We get back up.
Every. Single. Time.
Failure and defeat is what shapes us into the people we can become. How we deal with adversity, our perseverance, will, and determination, makes us stronger as human beings. It can inspire us to try harder. By not focusing on the failures, or the roadblocks set against us at every corner, and instead saying, “ok, that didn’t work, but maybe this might”, we can overcome our opposition and accomplish great things. Examples of this are everywhere you look. J.K. Rowling received twelve rejection letters before she got Harry Potter published. It took Frank Herbert twenty tries to publish Dune, and that’s the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. Marie Curie was denied the first teaching position she applied for simply on the grounds that she was a woman, then went on to become the first person to ever receive Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science. Edmund Hilary didn’t summit Everest until his third attempt. Shaq missed 5,317 free throws over the course of his career. During the first U.S. attempt at putting a rocket into space, the Vanguard TV3 literally exploded into a rampaging fireball while it was still parked on the launch pad.
What I’m saying here is that if Tony Hawk quit the first time he fell off his skateboard, he wouldn’t have sold 30 million copies of a video game with his name on it. If you want to see true perseverance, there’s a great video I’ll link here of Tony Hawk at age 49 trying to replicate his historic 900-degree spin. He finally gets it (uh, spoiler alert?), but roughly half of this video is him slamming into the deck in ways that look increasingly painful. The expressions on his face as the struggle goes on tells you everything you need to know, and it serves as a very visual reminder that nobody is perfect, and that every single person who has ever tried anything has failed at it at some point. And they’ve probably failed at it a lot.
But they get back up. Every. Single. Time.
Success in the face of failure can also create some very interesting and unexpected results. For instance, Coca-Cola was invented by a Civil War veteran who was trying to find something to help him deal with the chronic pain associated with having a cavalry saber slashed across his midsection. Penicillin was discovered by a scientist who got lazy and didn’t clean his petri dishes. The Big Bang was uncovered by two guys who built an antenna and couldn’t figure out why it was buzzing so much. Viagra was formulated to be a heart medication. Christopher Columbus died still thinking he was hanging out on some islands off the coast of India. These discoveries were all a failure to accomplish the initial goal, but it’s another example of why it helps us to continue on in the face of adversity – you never really know where your path leads until you grit your teeth and decide to start walking it.
So, at the risk of sounding even more like some cheesy self-help book or an over-hyped personal trainer yelling at you at the gym, all of these stories and examples combine to tell us one thing – when failure stares you in the face, the world kicks your butt, and an army of trolls and other assorted worthless naysayers are crushing your soul, you have two options before you: You can give up, lie down, and let yourself drown in a sea of self-pity, or you can claw your way out of that hole, drag yourself back to your feet, and show the world that you are ready to utterly destroy everything in your path.
Success is there for the taking. But you won’t get there without a few failures along the way.
So be prepared to get back up.
Ben Thompson is the award-winning author of twelve books on various awesome historical subjects, including the Badass, Guts & Glory, and Epic Fails series. He has appeared on television programs for The History Channel, Discovery, and The American Heroes Channel, written dozens of print articles, and has run the successful website badassoftheweek.com since 2004. Ben’s work has received awards from the National Parenting Publications, the International Literary Organization, and the Parent’s Choice Group, though what he’s probably most proud of is the time the local newspaper called him “Seattle’s Sexiest Dungeon Master” while writing about his weekly Dungeons & Dragons game.
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history.