One winter in college I was visiting Paris, sitting at the bistro near my hotel just watching people. An American couple came in and the husband, in an accent I would best describe as “Chicago detective” (the word “Paris” came out sounding like “Pears”), called the waiter and tried to get “Two diet cokes”. The waiter in classic Parisian style, pretended not to understand what the man was saying. “Can you repeat, Monsieur”, he asked in French. The husband, in classic American style, only spoke louder, adding, “I know you know what I’m talkin’ about here”. The waiter, whom I had heard speak English to some women earlier, continued to feign interest in the conversation saying, “Faites un bel effort, Monsieur.” (make a beautiful effort).
Make a beautiful effort.
I’ve come to see that while we live in a world of measurement, where results are what matter, we must not forget the value of making a beautiful effort. This is about transforming ourselves in the process of failing at something. It is risking everything in a game we are bound to lose, doubling down when the odds are completely against us.
We tend to take on those challenges where we have a known likelihood of success. We consider what is prudent and practical, which give us the illusion of safety as we roll toward the inevitable. If safety is an illusion then so is risk. It is the frog in the well — the little voice in our head that warns, “This is not who you are.” Sometimes it reminds us, “You failed at this before, you’ll likely fail again, so stay where you are, nobody gets hurt.”
It is knowing who we are by what we have done that gives us a tolerance of ‘reasonable’ risk. But what we have done is not who we are, it is who we were. Whether we failed before is irrelevant in estimating the odds of future success. Success is how we define it, and as the NLP presupposition goes, “There is no failure, only feedback.”
One of the greatest causes of stress and unhappiness is our fixation on a narrow, random definition of success. We become trapped in the duality of winning and losing. We come to judge ourselves as winners or losers in the games we play, often forgetting that the game is playing us. At the end of the day, it’s we ourselves who make these rules, stacking the odds against ourselves in a game that we make nearly impossible to win.
It is those who, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Fail while daring greatly,” create a place in our collective consciousness by leaving an inspiring legacy. While our world of measurement rewards success, our capacity for greatness is as much about failure as it is about achievement. When we bring our best selves to the game in the pursuit of something truly noble, winning or losing matters less than how the process shapes our character. Perhaps the consolation prize is that our efforts may inspire others to take on similarly great challenges. For me, winning or losing is irrelevant; it’s all about who I’m becoming in the game.
The person perhaps most famous for his achievements, without ever reaching his goal was Sir Ernest Shackelton, the celebratred British explorer. He led three failed attempts to reach the south pole, first as an officer with Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition, where Shackleton fell ill and had to be sent home early. He then led the Nimrod expedition which due to the bad weather, was cut short. Most spectacularly, was Shackleton’s trans-antarctic attempt on the Endurance, in which the ship became trapped in the ice pack and crushed, forcing the men onto the drifting floes and ending in a legendary crossing of the treacherous Weddell Sea in whaling boats 18 months later. His crew of 27 miraculously survived the journey, and Shackleton was lionized by his men and knighted by the Queen.
Better a live donkey than a dead lion, Shackleton famously said, but he also understood the value of making a beautiful effort. Recklessness and carelessness are not the same as putting it all on the line in the defining moments of our lives. Those moments are opportunities to transcend ourselves, to capture the imagination and move the world forward.
This is not to say we should enter into a challenge with the sole intention of making a beautiful effort. Rather it is our sense of mission and purposeful belief in the significance of our quest that inspires, regardless of success or failure. Trying has no place here. Trying is rooted in the expectation of failure, as a way to comfort ourselves when things don’t work out. Trying dilutes intention. It may be sincere, but it always falls short. Giving up trying is creating a space for empassioned commitment. Once the fear of failure is removed, new opportunities for success present themselves.
So I’ve stopped trying to be successful. I’ve given up on avoiding failure. I’m focused on being; being the guy who makes things happen, who inspires, who takes on meaningful challenges with passion, regardless of outcome. Where this leads I do not know, but I know I’ll be ready for it.
“For scientific leadership, give me Scott, for swift and efficient travel give me Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” – Sir Raymond Priestley, from the Nimrod Expedition