Success and Failure: Is There a Difference?


December 2015
Ivan Obolensky

Why is outstanding success so elusive? People work day and night. They receive more education, attend seminars, follow gurus, and listen to mentors. Those that aspire to that level of achievement try everything and anything, but often to no avail. There seems to be only a handful of people who reach a high level of success in spite of the tremendous efforts put in by many walking the same path. Perhaps by examining its opposite: what leads to spectacular failure, we can get a better grasp on some of the factors involved.

In the context of this article, a failure is not classified as a mistake, or a simple “I tried this and it didn’t work”. Here we will look at failure on a grander scale, what could be termed a System Event. By restricting our focus to failures of this order of magnitude, we get a sense that both spectacular success and notable failure are not the result of simple one-time occurrences. In addition, success and failure are more alike than we think. They are processes. The only difference is the results.

The significance here is that many search for the one thing that will set them apart from the crowd and guarantee them success. On the other hand, when things go from bad to much worse, the question becomes: “What did I do wrong? Or, what happened?” Fixating on a single cause, something we all do to a lesser or greater extent, is itself a systemic error, even if on a micro-scale. It is an error, because the attention on a single cause fails to embrace the possibility that success and failure are the results of strings of events, multiple causes, and a collection of interactions. In fact, any perceived success or failure such as “I won the award. I didn’t win the award” are just individual snapshots, or screen captures, we take along the path of a much longer process called Life.

Here is an example of a notable failure.

On January 15, 1919 around noon at the North end of Boston, Massachusetts, the large cast iron storage tank owned by U.S. Industrial Alcohol (USIA) collapsed sending a 25-foot tsunami of molasses down Commercial Street and the adjacent waterfront. The tank contained 2.3 million gallons of black molasses. The volume was so huge and the force of the cascading viscous liquid so great that buildings were demolished and an elevated train track collapsed. Some 21 men, women, and children died of drowning and suffocation with scores of people injured. Boston smelled of molasses for a week, and the harbor ran brown until the summer.1 Litigation as a result of the flood took years and lasted until 1925.

(On a positive note, the catastrophe led to the enactment of a new set of regulations across the country that made it mandatory for all major structures to be certified by a registered engineer before any building permits could be issued.)

As to why the disaster occurred in the first place and what caused USIA to build a 50-foot-high, 90-foot-wide storage tank in the middle of a Boston business district can be summed up in one-word: expediency.

Molasses is a byproduct extracted during the sugar refining process. Sugar cane is crushed and then boiled to extract sugar, which forms as crystals. The residue left over is a syrup known as first molasses. Boiling it again and extracting the sugar, results in a lower grade liquid called second molasses. The third extraction, once the sugar is removed, is known as blackstrap molasses, a dark bittersweet liquid, 13 thousand tons of which poured onto the streets of Boston.

Originally constructed in 1915, the storage tank was rushed into service in anticipation of the United States entry into WWI. Its purpose was to hold molasses, which arrived by ship before it was freighted by rail to be made into industrial alcohol at other facilities. Industrial alcohol was in great demand by US munitions and explosives manufacturers supplying the European war effort against Germany. In fact, if it hadn’t been for this huge demand for munitions, the US would have continued further into the recession that had consumed the country during this time. So great was the need for industrial alcohol, that even with the Boston storage facility completed, there was never enough to meet the needs of the munitions industry.

To speed delivery, the USIA molasses storage was located on the waterfront next to railroad tracks making easy access both for offloading from ships and loading into tank cars. There was no permit issued for the tank because the structure was considered a receptacle, not a building. In addition, USIA was able to sidestep any red tape by leasing the land directly from the Boston Elevated Railway and using their permit. Lastly, it was built in an area made up of Italian immigrants who kept to themselves and were politically silent, considering the majority could not vote.

From inception the facility was plagued with problems. Negotiations with the railway and the manufacturer, Hammond Iron Works, took much longer than expected. Each month of delay cost USIA huge sums in lost profits. Having given approval for the project in late 1914, there was great pressure to get the facility finished. So much so, ships were already scheduled to land and off-load the day after the completion date. Construction continued around the clock.

It is normal to water-test such a tank before being placed in service, but because it would take weeks to fill the tank and drain it completely, the tank was tested with only six inches of water.

The tank was finally completed in December 1915 a day before the arrival of the first molasses shipment.

From the very beginning, the tank leaked and groaned. There was so much leakage that over time it was repainted brown from its original gray in order to hide the long dark streaks that poured from almost every seam.

In spite of numerous concerns by work crews that were reported to management, the tank remained in use but not usually at full capacity. That changed in 1919 for two reasons: WWI ended in 1918 resulting in far less demand for munitions and thus, industrial alcohol. Secondly, Prohibition was making its way through the ratification process as a constitutional amendment, meaning that the consumption of alcoholic beverages would become illegal. Since there was to be a year’s grace-period before the law became enforceable, USIA had until January 1920 to create and sell as much consumable alcohol as possible. With profits dropping, USIA ordered the Boston tank filled to its maximum capacity as soon as possible.

Molasses was shipped from the Caribbean. Its temperature was usually around 80 degrees at embarkation. By the time it reached Boston the temperature would drop to around 65 to 70 degrees during warmer months. Even in winter, the temperature rarely dropped below 52 degrees due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and partly because of the density of the liquid, which allowed it to retain heat for long periods.

The last addition to the tank was made on January 13th, 1919. There was no problem with the offload, but when the warmer molasses was mixed with the colder molasses, the result was fermentation. The fermentation resulted from yeast cells that grew inside the tank producing alcohol and CO2 as byproducts.

It was impossible to see what was going on inside the tank, but the sound of this process was heard throughout the neighborhood as the tank metal groaned and shrieked. At 12:41 on the 15th of January the metal finally gave out.

Later analysis showed that the plates holding the structure were of insufficient thickness, and that the static pressure of the molasses alone was enough to endanger the structure. The coldness of the January temperatures in Boston ensured the viscosity of the molasses prevented the CO2 from easily bubbling up and out of the tank but instead it was retained inside the tarry liquid. This created pressure on the sidewalls that eventually gave way2. The result was a system failure, one that should have been predictable and preventable, but wasn’t.

One characteristic of system failures is that they are easy to see with hindsight, but difficult to predict looking forward because there are so many possible branches that a system can take, not all of them leading to catastrophe.

Charles Perrow in his 1984 book, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies, outlined several conditions that lead to system accidents:

The system is complex. Systems contain many parts that interact in many different ways. In terms of the USIA tank, there was the environment, the structure, the transportation, the economy, management procedures, and the nature of molasses, itself.

The system is tightly coupled. Tightly coupled means that the system cannot easily be broken down into parts without stopping the system as a whole from functioning. Each part depends on the part before it and ahead of it. The economy, the weather, the rush to build, all interacted in such a way as to create the final outcome.

The system has catastrophic potential. In this sense catastrophe means a disaster, and in the case of the Boston Molasses Flood, it definitely was. Nonetheless, catastrophe, as used in Catastrophe Theory3 has a different nuance, namely that smooth continuous changes in input variables of nonlinear systems can lead to large discontinuous changes in behavior. As an example, a wave breaking on the beach is a smooth movement of water in the open sea but as water depth decreases when the wave approaches a shoreline, the bottom part of the wave is slowed down causing the top part to build on top of it until it cannot be maintained. The wave then breaks with the top arching over the bottom part creating a qualitative change.

Cascading failures. One element affects another element, which eventually affects the whole. The difference from a simple failure is that a cascade is a series of failures one leading to the next. In the Boston Molasses Flood, the failure to build correctly, the attempt to rescue sagging production with a foray into consumable alcohol, the mixing of warm and cold molasses, the failure to sound an alarm even when the entire waterfront knew that something was happening in the tank, all led to loss of life. Had the system followed another path, it is likely there would never have been a disaster, or, at least, one of lesser proportions.

Opaqueness. One can’t see inside the system as it is operating to know what is happening. There was no way to measure the pressure that was building in the tank.

Lastly, there is a tendency in larger organizations to be safe and ensure there are no repercussions by doing everything by the book. Numerous individuals, even from the beginning, were concerned about the tank. Flakes of iron would fall from the inside when it was emptied. Leaks were commonplace, so much so, that the Italian community used the leakage as a source of sweetener on a regular basis. All this was reported but pushed aside because production demanded it.

Some additional observations by Perrow:

People make mistakes.

Big accidents escalate from small beginnings.

Organizational elements are more causative and relevant than technological mistakes.4

Such is the case with System Failure. What if we were to turn this around to see if it is possible to learn something about success?

Conditions leading to success rather than failure:

Big success escalates from small beginnings.

Organizational elements are a more causative and relevant factor in success than talent or technological achievement.

People have talents and can create excellent products.

Success is not guaranteed in the same way that failure is not guaranteed. If success is a complex set of interlocking circumstances, there are so many possible branches that a system can take, it is impossible, looking forward, to be certain of the end result. On the other hand, when looking back, it is easy to see the path taken once completed. Because of this branching effect, following in the footsteps of someone who is successful is no guarantee of similar results. Success, like its brother, failure, is complex.

Success is tightly coupled. Same as in failure, it is difficult to distinguish the parts from the whole without stopping and possibly destroying the system. As a chain of events and factors, each one depending on the other, no single cause creates the result; be it success, or failure.

Success has catastrophic potential in the sense used in Catastrophe Theory. Growth is nonlinear. Consistent growth can lead to large unexpected qualitative changes in the end result only with what might be viewed as a disproportionate positive outcome. Imagine a wave not crashing downward, but soaring skyward instead.

Success is a cascade of factors, not a single one.

Success is opaque. It is difficult to separate and examine the elements, events, and circumstances creating the success, particularly when it is happening.

Success means doing the opposite of playing it safe and sticking with the playbook when circumstances demand it. Success is not for the faint of heart. It requires stepping far outside one’s comfort zone.

One can be a very good artist, a brilliant writer, an outstanding filmmaker, or a genius inventor, but unless the organization exists to get the word out, the promotion done, and handle the results both financially and organizationally, the likelihood of success beyond one’s wildest dreams will remain just that: beyond one’s wildest dreams.

Think Process, not Event. Knowing this, it is possible to succeed.



  1. Wallechinsky, D. (1995) History with the Boring Parts Left Out. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Co.
  2. Puleo, S. (2004) Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, MA: Beacon Press Books
  3. A. (N.D.) Catastrophe Theory. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved December 6, 2015 from
  4. Perrow, C. (1984) Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. New York, NY: Basic Books


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© 2015 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Georgette Blanchard
    Georgette Blanchard12-12-2015

    Very well put. As one who has studied systems all her life, I can relate to a small step or series of small steps leading either to success or failure. Even trying to analyze it in hindsight does not always give the “whole picture”. It can be “where” did we go wrong, but often “when” did we go wrong because what is right today might be wrong tomorrow or vice versa. Systems are impacted by our decisions but also by outside sources which cannot be controlled and are often invisible, until after the fact.

    • Ivan

      Thank you for commenting. You are so right. It is that opaqueness that makes outstanding success so difficult. Sometimes we only know after the fact.

  2. Silvia

    Fascinating article, full of history and information I did not even know it had happened; the disaster of the molasses.
    But most importantly is the summation of success and completely agree that it does start with small details and
    the causes of its expansion are several, not just one.

    Thank you very much for sharing this information. Keep it up, I always enjoy reading them.

    • Ivan

      Thank you for your comments. I learn quite a bit when I write them. What surprised me the most was that organizational elements are more relevant than talent or technological achievement. It seems so contrary. One must have the talent but without the organizational skill and infrastructure, success will be limited.

  3. Gilles

    What a brilliant article! I always like the historical aspect of the problems you highlight. The failure of different systems has been studied and the medical errors in one of the most interesting as it costs lives. In the report: To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, estimated 98’000 unnecessary deaths happened every year in the USA. These medical avoidable catastrophes are eye openers!

    • Ivan

      Thank you so much for your comments. I remember reading Complications: A Surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science with great interest. There are more failures than we like and as you said unnecessary.

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