If Necessity is the Mother of Invention, is Failure the Crazy Uncle?

Successful people love to talk about failure. From Ray Bradbury (“You fail only if you stop”) to Melville (“He who has never failed somewhere… that man can never be great”) and beyond, failure is an old and familiar subject. Oprah talks about her failed stint as a news reporter. Julia Roberts remembers failing to be cast in All My Children. In retrospect, it seems, the famous are all hopelessly nostalgic for the failures of their past. But, in the moment of our own letdown and disappointment, we can convince ourselves that no one else has ever failed quite as exceptionally as we have. So, how to change this paralyzing perception?

Think biology. There’s a component of the brain, somewhere in the forefront, that is responsible for cataloging all of the things we have tried that have not quite worked out. The brain can then flip through this Rolodex of learning moments to make a split second determination for how we should proceed in the presence of a new situation – whether we should drive on E or wear socks with sandals on a first date, for example. Picture rats learning to race through mazes in search of cheese, babies learning to walk and talk, newborn birds warbling mating songs. We experiment, apply what we have learned, and try again. From that perspective, are the majority of failures really that big of a deal? Think about it – Apollo 13, with its technical malfunctions and its quick-thinking MacGyver-like crew, was termed a ‘successful failure.’

Failure is just an intrinsic part of the innovation process – as in the abysmally cheerful refrain of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” For, if you are hard at work on a problem, and are busy discovering all of the things that your work is not, you might finally stumble upon that which it is. Through your stumbling, you may come to understand the intricacy of your subject in a greater depth – or an entirely different light – that would not have been possible had the path been straight and unencumbered. (Hmmm… sound somewhat like life itself? Doesn’t choosing that road less traveled sometimes make all the difference?) Think Play-Doh and Post-It-Notes – Play-Doh was meant to be a wallpaper cleaner and Post-It-Notes were meant to be a super-adhesive. Remember, it took Dyson 5127 prototypes to finally produce a cyclonic vacuum that people would buy, and legend has it that Edison, in search of a suitable filament for the incandescent light bulb, said, “I have not failed. I have merely found 1000 ways that won’t work.”

I imagine sometime around the 70th cyclonic vacuum failure anyone would want to sit down and have a frank discussion on whether they should continue or not. So, the other critical component here is believing in ourselves, having the ability to pick ourselves up when we’re down, and the presence of mind to know when to listen and when not to listen to all of those critics. The FedEx business plan initially received a ‘C’ at Yale for lack of feasibility. Einstein, Darwin, Churchill, and Newton were all told they wouldn’t amount to anything. Mary Kay was passed over for promotion – because she was a woman. Louisa May Alcott’s family encouraged her to work as a servant.

It is hard, whoever we are, to look within ourselves and feel any measure of success as we attempt to bring to the forefront that which resides inside us. It is difficult to pursue a dream – to slog through its challenges and setbacks – but, back to Bradbury – ‘you fail only if you stop.’ Remember: Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 20 years before one was accepted.

Failure is necessary because it is what breeds and rewards perseverance and individual thought. Those who are truly dedicated fight through the failure and rise to the top, and so, in so many arenas, it is the ability to learn from our mistakes that gives us the best product, and it is individual persistence (and standing up and shaking ourselves off) that lets us percolate up through the crowds. There is nothing magical about either of those things. They are both learned traits, possibly involving little more than the minor opthamalogical trick of changing the lens through which we view ourselves.

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