In Praise of Failure
On Saturday, June 12, 2010, I set out to swim the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. This is a 28.5 mile counterclockwise circumnavigation of Manhattan (yes, Manhattan really is an island!)
The swim also marked the third “major” open water swim of my career. The other two: the English Channel and the Catalina Channel. The three swims meet the requirements for the “Triple Crown of Ocean Swimming”. Only 40 other swimmers have completed all three major endurance swims in history.
Along the way we’ve hurdled some huge obstacles. It rained on us in the English Channel in 2008 during the swim and in the 10 days of waiting for the opportunity to “make the attempt”. Pitch-black darkness, jelly fish stings and cold water just off the coast in the nighttime Catalina Channel swim in 2009. Endurance events are epic struggles, so you expect pain, sickness and problems. But nothing we could not overcome.
So for Manhattan, I set out to swim around the Island as quickly as possible, envisioning a total time of less than 8 hours. In a time trial just 6 days before Manhattan I clocked 6.2 miles in just over 2 hours. We were all set.
And what a setting for a swim: New York City. Quite possibly the world’s greatest modern city. A monument of human engineering prowess and ingenuity — and most importantly of trade and the spontaneous order of the market. Whenever I get a chance, I like to tell people: Trade is prosperity. NYC is a great reminder of this dictum. How many of the goods consumed on the “Island” are made in NYC? Very few, but prosperity reigns. What makes the modern world prosperous is not resource abundance or a central plan directing all the activity, it’s trade. Indeed, Frederic Bastiat also pondered the question of how Paris was fed. He concluded it wasn’t the benevolence of the rest of France, it was an “exchange of service”. It was trade.
The swimmers entered the water in a single file line at Battery Park South Cove on the Hudson River. I opted for a “cannonball” entrance into the warm, 63 degree water. The 38 swimmers then gathered into a group for the “in the water” start. I was the first swimmer out of the cove at the start. Soon my brother — as always in a kayak during my swims — fell in alongside.
With the Statue of Liberty off to the right we made a left-hand turn on our way around the tip of Manhattan to cross under the 126-year old Brooklyn Bridge and up the East River (I stopped for a few seconds under the bridge, rolled over and enjoyed the moment). How many people have pulled off a back float under the Brooklyn Bridge?
The course connects you across the Harlem River and into the Hudson for the final stretch.
But just after crossing under the Brooklyn Bridge I swam through the backwash from another boat: motor oil on the surface of the water penetrated the pores on my face and scalp, burning. Sucking in the fumes was unavoidable. Soon I became physically ill. Unable to keep down my food — or “fuel” as we call it is ocean swimming. For endurance events you have plans. Then you have back-up plans. Then you have back-up, back-up plans. We tried liquids, gels, solid food. Nothing worked.
Everything I put in found a way back out into the East River. Severe fatigue set in. So did dehydration as I felt my body ache from lack of water. By the time I made it all the way up the East River and into the Harlem River, the lack of energy made me wonder: could this be it? Was I hitting a wall? How much further could I make it? Would I fail on this swim?
My mind reeled. Months of preparation. Thousands of dollars in expenses. A team of supporters traveling to NYC to help and witness the swim.
Now, I wanted to finish – but my body refused to let me. I grew more tired, more dehydrated. My turnover slowed to a crawl as we slowly made our way up the East River. I could barely swim. I felt myself fading fast. Other swimmers passed us — a huge psychological blow.
I faced failure in the face.
I know it’s not what you want to hear about. You want to hear a story of success, of triumph over long-odds. But I want you to think about failure here.
When I swam for my old swim coach – Steve — he used a phrase: “swim to fail” or “swim to failure”. This meant pushing yourself in training as hard as you could go, until your muscles tightened up or you had to stop, gasping for air or throttled by fatigue. It was a test to see how hard you were really pushing, but also a reminder that there are physical limits. And, more importantly, that those limits were, well, so what? You’d take a rest and try again, maybe next week or next month, and push on. Failure was the key to progress. To have a better swim next time. Without failure you never knew how good you could be.
I think too people many are afraid of failure. It makes us hesitate. It makes us shrink away from tasks and new challenges.
It’s not just athletic endeavors.
In the economy, I sense a massive fear of failure. Indeed, most of the last 3 years of “economic policy” are geared toward preventing failure–and in fact gathering up unprecedented amounts of resources to do so, diverting those resources from other activities to guarantee businesses do not fail. Many fear that if we don’t “do something” to help those we will face severe consequences. But did you know that the majority of US companies in existence today weren’t around in 1980? Failure — and innovation and creation — are hallmarks of the US economy. The vast majority of net, new jobs created in my lifetime were “created” by small, start-up companies. At the same time, many do not survive the first year.
Failure is healthy.
Now obviously I wouldn’t have enjoyed failing in Manhattan. Who would?
And the last thing I wanted was to climb out (or, rather, be pulled out of the river and onto the boat — a disqualification). So I just kept swimming. I told myself, if I can make it to the Hudson River we can take a break there. I began favoring one side, putting a lot of strain on my right shoulder. Soon every right arm stroke was accompanied by piercing pain.
I made it to the Hudson. But I didn’t stop out of fear I wouldn’t be able to muster the strength to start again. Slowly, the New York City skyline scrolled by to my left. Central Park. Midtown. The Financial District. I was limping toward the finish. Four or five times along the way I felt the world grow dim, as I nearly passed out from exhaustion, dehydration and lack of nutrients.
I remember treading water in the Hudson River — over 7 hours into the swim at this point — and still throwing up in the water. And just to top it all off: another swimmer passed me as I felt my body growing weak and light headed. But I kept going.
I finished in 8 hours, 14 minutes, 8th place overall. A failure? Perhaps. In fact, all I can remember from the finish is my brother yelling, Yes, Triple Crown! Triple Crown!
Why did I succeed on this swim? Because I was not afraid to fail. I took an enormous gamble but I thought to myself, If I fail, so what? I kept swimming and focused my thoughts on one thing: climbing out of the Hudson river onto the dock at Battery Park. Rather than shrinking away from failure, let’s embrace it.
Let’s swim to fail.