The ship Vasa – Celebrating Failure

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On a recent trip to Stockholm, one of our tourist stops was the Vasa Museet – a museum dedicated to the Vasa, a ship from 1628 that sunk 1,000m in to her maiden voyage.

At the time, her sinking was thought to the result of her heavy artillery tipping the ship over. Today it is understood that the ship was simply too top heavy and it was a strong gust of wind that sent her to the bottom of the Stockholm harbour.

For a ship it’s safe to say that, irrespective of the cause, not making it out of the harbour in your maiden voyage is, well, a fail. However the aspect of this story that struck me wasn’t the sinking, but the aftermath. Or rather lack of.

You see, no one was held to blame. No fingers pointed. No jobs lost.

Fancy that, a massive project* involving quite a bit of money, resources, years of work and craftsmanship, fanfare with crowds seeing her off on her maiden voyage to then experience tragedy so soon and yet the King was pretty chill about it all. This is so different to both my own experience and wider knowledge of failure and the repercussions of it (especially in workplaces…. But let’s keep this on an individual level for now). It challenged me to ask this question:

How would it change your thinking, if you knew you could fail as big as the ship Vasa, and your life would continue on, more or less, as it is now? Do your goal posts shift?

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As well as challenging our thinking on how we react to failure, it’s important to acknowledge how the salvaging of the Vasa begs us to ponder success as well. All was not lost forever, as the successful restoration of the Vasa provides a snapshot of life in 1600’s Sweden that, had she been sea-worthy and made it out of port, we likely wouldn’t have insight to. So, while we can agree that the Vasa was a failure in lessons of creating a seaworthy vessel, is it possible that long-term we can view her as a success in providing a snapshot of the art, tools, and lifestyles from hundreds of years ago? There was also the challenge she provided for the workers who dredged her out of the harbour in the mid 1900’s to learn and create tools that would enable her to remain in restorable condition.

What are your short-term failures teaching you long term? How might something that didn’t make any sense to you at the time, maybe 2 months or 5 years ago, serve you now?

The Vasa Museet has prompted me to re-visit my assumptions and definitions around failure and success, reiterating that sometimes things just don’t work or make sense, but that doesn’t mean they never will. Quite an impression all from a couple of hours spent in a museum while on holiday!

*The Vasa has also been used as an example of ‘how not to’ do project management in business schools over the world, however is another blog entirely.

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