Never Waste Failure

As we approach 2020, the Chamber has been harking back to the unexpected decision to close Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1993, followed quickly by full closure in 1995. There are many lessons and stories from that period and the years since then, but I have embraced a three-word phrase resonating most strongly: NEVER – WASTE — FAILURE!

We had failed to save the Base and the much-expanded Air Force mission expected to come here. The wholly unexpected nature of the decision left all of us stunned and concerned. Some felt we were destined for economic decline unless some big government presence was secured in place of the Air Force. Some thought notions of productively redeveloping the massive facility were foolhardy, believing we shouldn’t even try.

But looking back, those three words about not wasting failure seem defining. Because with the right mindset and determination, failure can often be liberating, setting you free from old assumptions about limitations, or from the absence of a perceived urgency to pursue new things. It can be an opportunity to rethink, re-envision, re-strategize, reimagine, and redirect. It can, above all else, elevate an understanding of the power of curiosity.

Walt Disney, who had been fired and rejected more than once in his early years, being told at one point he lacked imagination, tells us of his company after mega success years later. “We don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we’re curious — and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

The curiosity that imperceptibly arose in the mid-1990s allowed us to ask a range of “what if” questions, even if we didn’t immediately sense any structure to the process, and many of the openings to “what if” have led to great results unimaginable before failure:

What if we could develop a special relationship with Montreal and Quebec, fostering investment by making ourselves a trusted economic beachhead in the U.S.?

What if we could build a diverse and growing manufacturing community while most others were convinced that manufacturing had no future?

What if we could make Plattsburgh a strategically important international hub for business and foreign investment by exploiting our special place in the integrating U.S.- Canadian economy?

What if we could develop a cluster of transportation equipment and aerospace companies, eventually having rail, road and aircraft components?

What if we could create a secondary airport for Montreal from the aviation assets of Plattsburgh International Airport?

What if we could “punch above our weight” politically by developing a network of meaningful, bipartisan relationships with federal and state officials, based on a new paradigm of non-traditional connections?

What if we could secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state investment for key infrastructure such as our border crossing, a new airport, and dozens of other strategic projects?

As a community and region, we can now appreciate just how strongly we refused to waste failure and just how far we have come in answer to the questions posed by fresh- and forward-looking curiosity. And as we enter 2020 and beyond, let’s continue to think “what if” while never being discouraged by the inevitable failures of some of the resulting efforts and quests.