Pop Culture

What If You Don't Succeed? National Geographic Has Answers.

You've been high. Bryan Smith has been higher. And he's been hotter. And he's been colder. And he's been pretty much everything in between. You'll have to listen to his talk to hear about just how extreme he is.
You've been high. Bryan Smith has been higher. And he's been hotter. And he's been colder. And he's been pretty much everything in between. You'll have to listen to his talk to hear about just how extreme he is. Photo by Pablo Durana
If at first you don't succeed, then try again — especially if it seems unachievable. That's the advice filmmaker Bryan Smith offers, and it is the crux of his talk this weekend during Capturing The Impossible. Part of Society for the Performing Arts partnership with National Geographic Live, the presentation starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wortham Center's Cullen Theater.

For Smith, the line between "going for it" and "going too far" is often blurry, especially when exploring the earth's most remote environments. In this edge-of-the-seat talk — complete with jaw-dropping visuals — Smith will show what it means to adventure with purpose and why he believes the best expeditions are the ones with a healthy chance of failure.

"I’m after projects that have a 60 to 70 percent chance of failing. It seems crazy, but if you go into something that has a 100 percent chance of succeeding, it’s boring, or it’s already what we know," he said.

His job often requires pushing physical limits and risking both life and limb. He's faced machete-wielding locals in Papua New Guinea, suffered frostbite during the first-ever ice climb of Niagara Falls, explored the South Pacific's deepest canyons and scaled North America's tallest mountains. It's one thing for an explorer of extreme environments to make it out alive to tell the story, but what happens when that job also involves taking a crew along to record the entire adventure? At first glance, these assignments seem like the proverbial hard pass, and that's the spot where Smith and his crew thrive.

"People can talk about success or failure. Failure is relative based on how you judge it. It’s easy to call failure for silly mistakes. But the only thing that is a real failure is if someone is injured or doesn’t come back alive," he said. "If we don’t get the shot or if it’s outside of our effort, it’s not a failure. Other times there are failures that are inevitable. When you work in the natural environment, you can’t control the weather. You can’t get mad."

Smith is willing to talk about it all — growth, failure, and all the lumps in between — and there are no holds barred in his speech. This becomes especially important considering that, from his point of view, failure begets success as long as one learns from it and grows in the next attempt.

Smith advises, "Some amount of failure is expected if you're on the edge of achieving the impossible. It’s not just learning from those mistakes, it’s also being able to absorb those mistakes. You’re not perfect, and you will fail sometimes when trying things that are hard, but I learned not to be discouraged by it."

One point of focus for his talk is an expedition to Alaska where he filmed two paragliders on a 600 mile journey with no help from the outside.

"They’re literally flying through the air with a bedsheet and set of strings. It’s an outrageous idea," he said. "There’s no towns, and there’s no fuel. We were in the field for 40 days and never came across another human being."
click to enlarge Think Houston temperatures are hot? Think again. - PHOTO BY DAVE PEARSON
Think Houston temperatures are hot? Think again.
photo by Dave Pearson

The expedition had a high chance of disaster, but the payoff for getting the shots was worth it as long as it was calculated enough. The trick to success, though, was planning ahead and trying to play Devil's Advocate in undermining the strategy in order to make it as fail-proof as possible.

"It’s an insane amount of pre-production, planning and thinking. You shoot holes in the plan anywhere you can. If you get a lot of confidence, you’re probably going to fail," Smith said. "You might take on something that is an exorbitant challenge, and the way you go about capturing the impossible is dissecting the challenging until you find a solution that will succeed. Sometimes it’s an evolution while you're out there. It’s your skill set and reaction to those situations and finding solutions on the ground."

Overall, Smith gives the advice of leaning into the uncomfortable and accepting failure as a stepping stone to bigger things.

"There are so many different forms of exploration, whether it’s the environment or nature-based or urban. Exploration is all about staying curious. Never get bored. Always keep asking questions. Keep trying to pry the door open to see if there is something that no one has seen before."

"Capturing the Impossible" is part of a yearlong lineup for Society for the National Geographic Live series, presented by Society for the Performing Arts. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. on February 2 at Wortham Center's Cullen Theatre, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit SPAHouston.org for tickets. $25 to $65.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd