From The Fall Of Failure, Success Can Take Flight Risking and embracing failure is part of the job for explorers and adventurers like aeronaut Salomon August Andrée. His fatal attempt at reaching the North Pole motivated others to push their own limits. The September issue of National Geographic investigates "famous failures" and why they mattered.
NPR logo

From The Fall Of Failure, Success Can Take Flight

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From The Fall Of Failure, Success Can Take Flight

From The Fall Of Failure, Success Can Take Flight

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It was only this past Monday, you may recall, that the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. It was a stunning success for the 64-year-old swimmer, and it was made all the sweeter because she had tried and failed four times before.

DIANA NYAD: We should never ever give up.


LYDEN: Inspirational. But she also learned some practical lessons from the earlier attempts. This time, she used a full-body suit and a mask to protect from jelly fish stings. Out of failure, she innovated. And out of innovation, she succeeded.

HANNAH BLOCH: In my interviews with explorers, so many of them said, really, the only failure that counts is dying.

LYDEN: That's National Geographic staff writer Hannah Bloch. She looked into the value of failure in the September issue of the magazine. And since this is National Geographic, she focused on adventurers and explorers, like the Swede Salomon August Andree. Andree was a humble patent clerk at the end of the 19th century. He was also a tinkerer, a risk taker, someone unafraid to try.

BLOCH: This was an era when the Arctic and the North Pole were really uncharted territory. And many people had tried to reach the North Pole by going overland. And they had died trying.

LYDEN: Andree saw these failures, and he thought he might have just the answer.

BLOCH: Salomon Andree just had this very bold, optimistic idea that he could basically circumvent a lot of the difficulties that others had encountered by going overland by going in a hydrogen balloon.

LYDEN: He convinced the king of Sweden and Alfred Nobel to back him. And on July 11, 1897, he and a small crew took flight.

BLOCH: They had flown for 65 and a half hours, and they landed on the ice about 298 miles south of the North Pole.

LYDEN: It turned out to be a fatal error. Their remains were discovered some three decades later along with a tuxedo which Andree had brought along to wear on his triumphant return. But his failure was an inspiration to many other polar aeronauts, for example, the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile, who made the trip in 1926. He didn't use a hydrogen balloon, however. Now, let's turn to another explorer and go somewhere a little bit warmer.


LYDEN: You hear that? Listen closely. It's a jungle on the island of Borneo, and the faint rustling in the background is a maroon leaf monkey jumping from branch to branch high up in the canopy. Many years ago, American primatologist Agustin Fuentes was trying to study the animals in Borneo. But they're shy monkeys, and Fuentes had to keep trekking deeper and deeper into the lush environment to get a closer peek.


AGUSTIN FUENTES: I got lost in the jungle and was actually helped by an orangutan who came down, got me and walked me back into camp. Early in my career, I wanted to study those things on the edge, the last remaining members of a species. It was really a lesson. I failed, so my experience there gave me the hint that, you know what, maybe what we should be looking at is not these last few things living out there, but those primates that do OK with people.

LYDEN: Since then, Fuentes has made a successful career as a macaque researcher, a primate that is anything but shy.


BLOCH: Think about what the world would look like if there was no such thing as failure. What would be the point in doing anything? I think failure is what gives success its meaning.

LYDEN: Diana Nyad would agree with that, and so would Umberto Nobile, the guy who did fly to the North Pole in a dirigible.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.