Guest Columnist: Troy Thrash, Air Zoo CEO
Failing is a gift that alters you forever. My greatest failure, thanks to the questions I learned to ask afterward, is now the most brilliant guidepost in my life.
WATCH Troy Trash’s TEDx TALK starting at 1:51:00
Join me in the wilderness of Alaska, spring of 1995. I was living in a tent studying a glacier. Each day I walked to and across the 27-mile-long river of ice to gather rock and water samples. Each day I was invincible.
One morning I traversed the ice through a fresh coat of snow, poking my ice axe at every step to ensure there was no hidden crevasse to swallow me up. After a long journey across, I put 24 bottles water on my back and headed for home.
“Troy, you’re a pretty smart guy. Safest way back across the glacier, retrace every step.” That was the last time I ever thought to myself, “Troy, you’re a pretty smart guy.” You see, Isaac Newton would have reminded me that force equals mass times acceleration, and by putting 24 full water bottles on my back, my downward force just increased by 30 pounds. Halfway across, I took one wrong step and the ice below me shattered. Ten months removed from saving another researcher’s life by pulling him out of a glacial hole, it was my turn. This time alone. 40 seconds was all I had.
40 seconds was all I had…..[pause]…..If I couldn’t scale the sheer ice walls of that crevasse, I would freeze in that glacier forever.
The next five-to-ten seconds that followed I will never remember. No, seriously, I don’t know how I got out, but my bloody arms and fingers were proof that my adrenaline made me climb like I never thought possible. The celebration of survival was short-lived, as I had a long walk, and my soaked clothes would start freezing in the 20-degree air.
Failing is beautiful – and necessary.
Failing shouldn’t weaken, but strengthen us. It shouldn’t make us more afraid but should fill our hearts with courage. Failing shouldn’t make us failures. It should make us champions.
That walk felt like an eternity. There were no cell phones, only moose and bears, but all I could think about was all the people that I wasn’t nice to; the loved ones I’d never get to say goodbyes to; and the loss of things I planned to do, and the value I won’t get to provide to this world.
Spoiler Alert…I SURVIVED. This was an experience that I wish upon none of you – yet an experience I wish for you all. Because that single failure has taught me more about how and why to live an impactful life than all of my successes, combined. And I learned that we should celebrate our fails with wild abandon, embracing those growth opportunities that success doesn’t offer.
I’m a scientist – so by design, I fail. We are humans – so by design, we fail. Have any of you ever had a spectacular failure? How did it change you? Did you ever look back later, after first thinking the sky was falling, to realize that fail was lifting you up to something greater?
For me, the common denominator in all my magnificent mess-ups was that I learned to ask the right questions in order to turn those fails into successes. I learned many moons ago, literally, that asking questions is the greatest power in the universe.
When I was seven my parents bought me this, my first telescope. I remember turning my telescope to the Moon for the first time and my wonder and curiosity exploded. The Moon wasn’t a flat disk of gray and white, but a fantastical three-dimensional sphere of mountains, valleys, and craters. For every new answer I got that night, 100 more questions to explore filled my brain. The very act of questioning instantly made my world enormous!!
In junior high I was making the world of others enormous by delivering planetarium shows and telescope observing nights to a curious public. It learned that, by inspiring others to ask questions, my own passions about the resplendent universe got bigger.
So I packed up this little guy, and I left home to get a degree in Astrophysics. Then, 14 years after we met, I was off to work with the most powerful telescope ever to peer into the vastness of space – NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
I spoke to every school I could about the most influential marvel of engineering human hands have ever created; this telescope that was going to better our lives by helping us understand our universe.
I was shocked that so many kids had never seen or looked through a telescope before.
While I loved to open up a new world for many kids, one constant question from adults haunted me: Why did we just waste two billion dollars on this orbiting piece of junk when we could have spent two billion dollars feeding the hungry or clothing the homeless?
I knew the answer, but at 22-years-old I wasn’t socially adept enough to get it out. I failed every time, but I truly began to understand the power of questions.
That’s when I made it my life’s mission to give every child the opportunity to fall in love with science and technology with their hands, minds, and hearts, just like I did. And show every adult how science and technology improves our lives every day.
Soon I was working across the country helping technical industries build up their future workforce. Healthcare, IT, manufacturing, aerospace and many other companies see the average age of their engineers near 60 and have nearly 50% of their workers eligible to retire in ten years. For our companies and our communities across the country to succeed in the 21st-century global economy, our children must become the innovators to invent our future world. Knowing that around three-fourths of the jobs today’s kindergartners will hold do not exist today, our children truly have the power to invent the future for us all.
So if you ask yourself, how do I inspire a community of innovators, you realize that every innovation, be it a work of art, electronic device, farming tool, or airplane, had three key ingredients: imagination, curiosity, and creativity.
Imagination, curiosity, and creativity
Luckily, we all share imagination. Imagination can launch us to distant worlds, or drive us toward a better version of this one. Would you agree that we don’t use our imagination as much as we did as kids? I’m constantly wishing I had my nine-year-old’s imagination, and wondering even more how I can help him fully unleash his creativity.
And the answer comes very simply. Give children, and yourselves, permission to fail, and the freedom to ask more questions. That’s it.
A child who asks questions and fearlessly creates art and structures now is the future adult who asks questions and fearlessly creates new technology or new infrastructure.
Toddlers are great at asking questions. No dear, you can’t eat glue. Why? Because it will make you sick. Why? Because it has bad chemicals in it. Why? Because people make things to better our lives that are not safe to eat. Why? Because it’s GLUE!! STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!! Wait, no, don’t stop asking questions. That’s your greatest power. Why?
Studies show that four-year-olds ask on average 75-125 questions a day to explore and understand their world while you help them to make good decisions. As they grow and the questions and solutions get more difficult, creativity flourishes.
But the questioning soon decreases due to several factors – frustration from adults; lessons in schools focused on answers, not questions; concerns of asking just one “stupid” question.
Fear of failure sets in. Curiosity and creativity diminish.
Soon we stop asking questions. Most by middle school. As adults, we ask six-questions-a-day. From 125 to six. We lose that child-like passion for exploration and discovery.
My head is spinning around this big question: if fear of failure causes us to stop asking questions, and we must ask questions to turn a fail into a success, then to build innovators, how do we inspire more fearless questioners and glorious failers?
We’ve all been told to “not let your failures define you”? Quick question: do you feel like your lives are shaped more by success….or failure? For me, I’m not defined by any bio of outcomes. I am a mosaic of all of my fails, pieces of many shapes and sizes that I continuously pick up and fuse back together, each time becoming a better me. Perhaps you as well.
When I was two my older brother and I played bullfighter, where he would hold up a red towel and I would run through it. One day, he held up that towel and I charged into it, not noticing that cinder block wall behind it. This lump on my head is a constant reminder that I should not trust what I cannot see.
When I was six I was flying down a hill on my new bike and learned how a front brake works. After that crash this tooth was hanging by a root, and to save it the doctor just jammed it in, backwards. Still backwards. A trophy for learning to always read instructions.
And from the glacier to all of my fails, I am different, and better, than I would be if I only tasted success. How about you?
And how about our crazy kids?
Studies show they have much to learn from failure. They become resilient and work harder when things don’t go as planned; they question and think critically; they build humility in the face of failure, and self-confidence and grit in the quest to triumph over it.
So let’s encourage our kids to try. If they fail, let’s cheer ‘em on. Our future leaders need to know that failing isn’t an end to be lamented, but a new beginning of learning and growth to be celebrated.
You might be thinking, how can I do this in my life? Let me give you some examples of how my family found joy and learning in recent fails.
When my kids spill juice all over the floor, we explore its shape and what it might look like in zero gravity. When I dropped a glass we studied how the impact could make that cool pattern of cracks in the glass. And when my son came crying because he was hit in the head by his sister’s paddleboard, after five deep breaths we celebrated him becoming the smartest swimmer in the lake because he learned to keep his cranium away from an oncoming board. Then I said the same words I have said to my kids after EVERY fail – if that is the worst thing that happens today, it will be a great day!! And the best part is, these techniques work for adults. It might take more practice, but is just as empowering.
I want my kids to push the boundaries, have beautiful accidents, and fail, just like I have. I inspire them to be failers, not failures. A failure gives up. A failer says, “hmmm, I tried hard, and that happened. What can I learn to move forward?” Imagine if all kids view failing not as a weight to push them down but as another rung in a ladder that helps them climb upward? How great would it be to help all kids diminish their fear of failing so their desire to be the best version of themselves ALWAYS wins the day?
Well, this is exactly what we are doing at the Air Zoo, an aerospace and science experience with over 100 airplanes and spacecraft, rides, flight simulators, and interactive exhibits.
Creating a culture of failure
We started by creating a culture of questioning and failure. Every employee must be a fearless innovator who questions everything, has succeeded wildly AND failed spectacularly. Our drive to impact our community ALWAYS eclipses our fear of failure. We’ve failed in every facet of our operation; celebrated; learned; and have grown our impact by over forty percent since 2013. I think is an approach that can work for any organization regardless of size, or mission.
Externally, we want every interaction with our guests to begin with a question and a thirst to find the answer.
We teach kids about the potential and kinetic energy of airplanes by having them build rollercoasters to get the ball to the end of the track.They often fail, then ask questions, use their creativity, and continuously innovate to find their solution. Then we dance.
Kids use chemistry to create rocket fuel and other crazy concoctions. For many this is their first experiment as a true scientist, and it is amazing to watch them astonish themselves. When was the last time you truly astonished yourself?
The Air Zoo is the only museum in the country that invites schools and public visitors to help restore two World War Two airplanes that were on the bottom of Lake Michigan for 65 years each. With every rivet a family pops together on this wing, from an SBD Dive Bomber that served at Pearl Harbor, questions are sparked, skills are learned, and history is made and remade. I want these experiences for EVERYONE!!
The bottom line is: We want to inspire EVERY child to be the innovators our communities need to thrive in the 21st century global economy.
And ALL of you have the power to do that. No matter where you are in life, find a pathway to exploration for you and your family. Immerse yourself in nature; do experiments; build stuff with household recyclables; ask questions; try something larger than you ever thought you could achieve; fail dazzlingly; celebrate learning; and try again toward unmeasured success!!
Ladies and gentlemen, the future of your community needs dreamers, fearless questioners, glorious failers, innovators, and leaders.
Let’s encourage every child and adult to ask questions, preparing them for that inevitable fail into their own glacier, and inspire them to climb out, look back, and say that I have failed, and I am better for it.
And when you think you are failing at that? Ask why, and know you are really just getting better.