Find a Way or Make One

Taken from www.oshermaps.orgInveniam viam aut faciam.  This quote is originally attributed to Hannibal, the famed Carthage leader who waged epic battles against Rome by conducting arduous and ingenious treks through the Alps.    Loosely translated it means, “Find a way or make one,” a motto adopted by explorer Admiral Robert Peary, made famous by his numerous failed attempts to reach the North Pole.  Upon returning from his third, finally successful attempt (which today appears was actually 5 miles short of the Pole), Peary was told that another explorer, Dr. Frederick Cook, a colleague from a former trip, had recently returned from an expedition in which HE had laid claim to reaching the North Pole a year earlier than Peary.  In other words, Peary wasn’t the first. He didn’t win.

And yet.  Peary didn’t focus on his failure, spending his remaining years instead promoting military and naval aviation and proposing the genesis of the US Postal Service’s air mail system. In fact, it could be concluded that Peary was NEVER discouraged by his failure, returning repeatedly through the most inhospitable of climates to that which alluded him: finding the North Pole. This resiliency was the topic of an article by Hannah Block in September’s National Geographic discussing the vital role of failure in knowledge acquisition, growth, exploration and development. Interestingly, we dread failure, avoid it, and fear it… yet it is critical to progress.  For those of us in scientific research, where significant results herald money, prestige, satisfaction, and job security, the concept of failure far too often becomes the only rubric by which we judge ourselves. In fact, for many of us, the potential for failure becomes the barrier rather than the door to ambition. But in reality, failure and success cannot exist without each other. Why? In brief (and paraphrased from the article),  failure:Picture taken from

  • Spurs us to reassess and rethink
  • Teaches coping skills
  • Provides information to help us do things differently
  • Reminds us that luck plays a role in any endeavor
  • Captures the imagination and motivates critical analysis
  • Lead to far greater gains in positive outcomes and forward trajectory
  • Forces us to cultivate persistence, resilience and adaptation
  • Encourages us to take the long view: failure is a temporary stopping point along the road to success
  • Creates knowledge and experience by expanding the boundaries of what we think possible

Therefore, in a world so delineated by distinguishing between positive and negative accomplishments, lauding the former and denouncing the latter, perhaps we would do better to live by Kipling’s lines from the poem If, that we “meet with triumph and disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same.”


4 thoughts on “Find a Way or Make One

  1. Particularly good article. Failure at anything can really lower self-esteem, and make one feel hopeless. But if we can look at it as a temporary stopping point, then it no longer holds such negative ramifications.

  2. An interesting post. I agree that failure is critical to growth, development, and tenaciousness. And I think I Bloch makes good points about the benefits of encountering failure in geographical exploration. However, I don’t agree that Peary is a good role model for overcoming failure. There is very good evidence that Peary couldn’t handle failure. He falsified aspects of his 1909 and 1906 expeditions (reaching the North Pole, farthest north, discovery of Crocker Island, etc) because the stakes of reaching the NP were so high. During one attempt to cross Greenland, he was so despondent at failing that he almost threw himself into a crevasse. And in his monomaniacal focus on reaching a geographical point that most scientists dismissed as irrelevant to geographical science, he lost 9 toes, and abandoned his wife Josephine and their two children and took up with an Inuit mistress. While some explorers do learn from their mistakes, others do not have the psychological stamina for this. Because failure becomes impossible for them to accept, “find a way or make one” becomes a way of rationalizing bad decisions and duplicity.

  3. Yes, I think the issue of failure and success occupied Peary’s thoughts constantly. Half of his final North Pole journal is filled with imaginings of his successful return: jottings on the design of geographical medals of honor, size of publishing contracts, and the shape of seals and Inuit figures he planned to place on his mausoleum. As to your bigger point, I think that tenacity in the face of failure does yield benefits. Yet these benefits — at least in Peary’s case — were applied quite narrowly to the task at hand: reaching the North Pole. Creativity, persistence, adaptability to new conditions, etc. were poured into this quest while the other aspects of his life atrophied. While I think many people do learn from their failures and apply these lessons broadly to their lives, Peary is representative of another group, a large class of people who learn how to achieving success without reflecting on the objects of their quest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s