February 1st, 2012
Modern science can do some amazing things. The technology we use every day is the result of centuries of research, discovery, and ingenuity. The observations and experiments we’ve made allow us to probe the outer limits of our imaginations and understand how the universe works to an incredible degree of accuracy. In order for all of this to be possible, thousands of people have devoted their lives to asking the big questions, searching for the life-changing answers, and going out on the longest of limbs.
Consequently, there are many people who have devoted the better part of their lives to a complete failure, whether it’s an idea that never comes to fruition, a discovery that’s made by someone else first, or a theory that ultimately leads nowhere. Naturally, we only really hear about the successes, so it’s easy to forget the trail of failed destruction that those success stories have clawed their way through. Even the successful people themselves have a seemingly countless number of stories of their own previous failures.
But the reality is that there are a good number of people out there who wind up committing almost their entire lives to a mistake. For example, there are thousands of theoretical physicists today devoting their lives to figuring out if string theory is the ultimate unifying theory of the universe. While it could turn out to be the answer, there’s also a possibility that it’s not, meaning that all these great minds have dedicated all their time to calculations that lead nowhere.
A success could mean they’ve contributed to something that literally changes everything we know about the universe. A failure could mean immeasurable lost time and resources that could have been used working towards a correct understanding of our world, or towards innovations and discoveries that could save lives, not to mention the lost money spent on building costly lab equipment and experiments.
This isn’t limited to scientists, of course. In many ways we all risk the same mistakes in our own lives—pursuing a dead-end career, being in a long-term relationship that turns out to be a lie, losing our life’s savings in a scam, putting everything we have into what eventually leads to a dead end. But I don’t think any of it really is a mistake, even if things don’t pan out the way we pictured or hoped for ourselves.
Pursuing a wild idea or passion is worth the risk, just in case it really is the right thing to do. More importantly, it’s worth the risk of being wrong because it gets us one step closer to the truth, one step closer to what we should be doing. Someone has to determine it was wrong in order for it to be ruled out. Sometimes that someone is a scientist narrowing down crazy theories. Sometimes that someone can only be ourselves, stumbling our way through life to find our true calling and purpose. Perhaps most importantly, it’s never a mistake when someone pursues something with passion, love and dedication. It’s never a mistake when you put all of yourself into a project or pursuit. The end result is basically irrelevant if you measure your life by what you put into it. If you only assess something’s worth in the end result, you’ll wind up saying that almost everything is a failure because it doesn’t last forever or it doesn’t achieve every single thing you set out to achieve. That’s an easy recipe for constant dissatisfaction in life.
We can’t know for sure if the risks we take will lead us where we want to go. All we can do is embrace our lives 100% while we live them. Many times, the end result will not be what we planned or hoped for. But if it were, life would be pretty boring. If you’re faced with disappointment, you learn, you pick yourself back up, and you throw yourself fully into something else. The notion of running against the clock is an illusion—it’s never too late to figure it all out. What “it” is will keep changing, anyway.
You can’t win ‘em all. Sometimes you can’t even win the vast majority. But I’ve come to realize that a lot of the time, one win is all you need. So I’ve decided to just go for it. Whether I’m right or wrong, I’m doing humanity and myself a service, because the world needs people to be doing what they love. Who cares about the end result?