I’m like most people. I don’t like the idea of failure. Failure usually means I’ve done something wrong or wasted my time. But what if failure were one of the best ways to experience a lifetime of forward growth and momentum? And what if when I’m not failing on a regular basis, I’m not doing much of anything at all? Like the statement, “grow or die,” maybe we’d all do well to start seeing the act of failing as a step on the path to a happy, exciting and SMART life.
One of the best reminders of reframing the act of failing is a short video by a guy named Tom Kelley (see attached). Kelly is an author and the General Manager of IDEO. In this video presentation at Stanford, Kelly reminds us all that Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 times before inventing the light bulb. 10,000 times!!! It’s said that when asked after the 9,001st time if he considered himself a failure, Edison answered with, “Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”
Tom Kelly also shares the story behind the formula for WD-40. Just about every house in the US contains a can of this stuff, which, as a “Water Displacement Formula” is good for all sorts of intended and unintended things. The WD in the name is obvious. What is less known is that it took the creators 40 different formulas before finding the one that worked! The 39 previous formulas were, as Edison might say, 39 ways the company learned that it didn’t “displace water.”
Finally, Kelly shares the story of James Dyson the creator of the Dyson Vacuum cleaner. Most people don’t realize that it took Dyson 15 years, nearly his entire savings and over 5,126 prototypes before he landed on his successful vacuum. According to a quote by Dyson in Fast Company magazine, he said, “We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually.”
What if we all did what James Dyson suggests and started thinking of failing as something naughty, dangerous and exciting? What if when others told us they wanted to try something new, we encouraged each other to “do it” instead of recommending the safe route? What if we all got busy and did something “wrong” on purpose just to see what would happen? We can’t even know what would happen because it’s never been done before—and maybe that’s the whole point. Now let me be clear, I’m not talking about being destructive or hurtful to others, the planet or myself. I’m talking about taking chances with wild abandon towards a desired intention. What if, the quote said by John Burroughs, “Leap and the net will appear,” was true? There is only one way to find out. Ready, set….
“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.”–John Burroughs
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt