There Is No Such Thing as Failure
By Michael Michalko | Mar 13, 2012Share
You cannot fail, you can only produce results.
As an infant, you learned how to walk by trial and error. The first time you made the effort you fell down and returned to crawling. You ignored your fears about falling and the results you had produced. You stood up again and again and fell again and again. Eventually you stood with a wobble and then another fall. Finally, you walked upright. Suppose as infants we had learned to fear failure. Many of us would still be crawling around on all fours.
It is the same with everything in life. Our nature is to act and produce results without fear. Yet, because, we have been educated to think critically and judgmentally, we imagine strong reasons for inaction and then allow it to become our reality, even before we make an attempt. Our fear is supported by an illusion that it is possible to fail, and that failure means we are worthless.
The reality is that there is no such thing as failure. Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. You cannot fail, you can only produce results. Rather than judging some result as a failure, ask "What have I learned about what doesn't work?", "Can this explain something that I didn't set out to explain?","What can I do with these results?", and "What have I discovered that I didn't set out to discover?".
Take the first airplane. On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government- funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? It was because Langley hired experts to execute his theoretical concepts without going a series of trial and errors. Studying the Wrights' diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, they made several mistakes which inspired several adjustments all of which involved a small spark of insight that led to other insights. Their numerous mistakes led to unexpected alternative ways which, in turn, led to the numerous discoveries that made flight possible.
Learn to Fail
It is a paradox of life that you have to learn to fail in order to succeed. Henry Ford's first two automobile companies failed. What he learned from his failures led him to be the first to apply assembly line manufacturing to the production of affordable automobiles in the world. He became one of the three most famous and richest men in the world during his time.
When Thomas Edison was seeking to invent the electric light bulb, he had thousands of failures. He would record the results, make adjustments and try again. It took him approximately 10,000 experiments to invent the perfect set-up for the electric light bulb. Once an assistant asked him why he persisted after so many failures. Edison responded by saying he had not failed once. He had learned 10,000 things that didn't work. There was no such thing as a failure in Edison's mind.
When you try something and produce a result that is not what you intended but that you find interesting , drop everything else and study it. B. F. Skinner emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of "creative failure methodology."
Answering the questions about discoveries from failures in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order. A DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this "unexpected" material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, "Teflon."
The discovery of the electromagnetic laws was also a "failed" experiment. The relationship between electricity and magnetism was first observed in 1820 by Oersted in a public lecture at which he was demonstrating the "well known fact" that electricity and magnetism were completely independent phenomena. This time the experiment failed! - an electric current produced a magnetic effect. Oersted was observant enough to notice this effect, honest enough to admit it, and diligent enough to follow up and publish. Maxwell used these experiments to extend Isaac Newton's methods of modeling and mathematical analysis in the mechanical and visible world to the invisible world of electricity and magnetism and derived Maxwell's Laws which opened the doors to our modern age of electricity and electronics.
If you just look at a zero 0 you see nothing; but if you pick it up and look through it you will see the world. It is the same with failure. If you look at something as failure, you learn nothing; but look at it as your teacher and you will learn the value of knowing what doesn't work, learning something new, and the joy of discovering the unexpected.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.
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There are two sides to every story: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; you take the bitter with the sweet; every rose has its thorn. However, in leadership, we often miss out on half the story. Most discussions focus on what leaders “should do” rather than on what they “should avoid.” The result? We talk about success, but seldom talk about failure.
In The Wisdom of Failure, we discuss a common theme among industry’s greatest leaders–their most important lessons have come from trial and error. Unfortunately, many of us don’t pursue the trial because we are fearful of making error. Jim Owens, former CEO of Caterpillar Inc., told us we actually learn more from our failures than we do from our success. He states that our most important lessons as leaders come from our toughest losses.
Mistakes are part of taking healthy risk. They provide us with new ways of thinking and give us new insights into how we can improve as leaders. Real failure doesn’t come from making mistakes; it comes from avoiding errors at all possible costs, from fear to take risks and from the inability to grow. Being mistake free is not success. Still, we avoid challenges and hide mistakes. We don’t like to talk about them and bring attention to them. It’s safer to look the other way or sweep them under the rug. That’s why so many leaders have the same struggles over and over again.
So, why don’t we embrace challenges and become accepting of mistakes–to learn from them and ultimately grow from them? And if learning from mistakes has so much value, why is it taboo to even talk about mistakes in the context of business and leadership?
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
We are all evaluated on how well we perform our jobs. Not surprisingly, companies pay their employees to succeed, not to fail. The better the performance review, the better we are compensated. However, performance reviews inherently reward us on our short-term success and penalize us for our short-term mistakes. Rarely does someone receive a performance review spanning several years. And personal growth from mistakes is an evolutionary process. It takes time. Mistakes today usually hurt our performance evaluations in the short term. Moreover, in entrepreneurial firms, making leadership mistakes are not only amplified, they can destroy an entire company.
So what do we do? We avoid them. Consider the Thomas Edison quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Do you think he would have lasted in today’s business environment? We have created an evaluation platform where successes are celebrated and failures are not. Remember, “failure is not an option.”
IDEO founder David Kelley believes failure is not only an option, it is a necessary ingredient for success. Rather than punishing employees for failure, he and his leadership team encourage employees to be comfortable with bad ideas–one of the reasons IDEO is one of our most innovative companies. He believes that without freedom to pursue bad ideas, employees will miss many good ideas.
A Culture Of Perfectionism
We live in a culture that values perfectionism. As children, we were told “practice makes perfect.” We learned that making mistakes was bad, that we need to always “color inside the lines.” We learned that to succeed we needed to “strive for perfection.”
Perfectionism is one of the biggest deterrents of learning from mistakes. People become so fixated on not failing that they never move forward. They focus on the upside risk associated with failing, rather than the downside risk of not trying at all. How did Tom Watson, former CEO of IBM, react when one of his executives made a $10 million mistake? Instead of firing him, he viewed the mistake as an investment in training and development. Why? Watson realized taking healthy risk will often result in failure, and that a culture of perfectionism can be paralyzing to progress.
Losing Balance Between The “What” And The “How”
To advance our careers, we are encouraged to build social capital, to gain respect, and to create an image of professionalism. Managing the way others view us becomes larger than reality. The result–we become overly concerned with achieving the goal rather than considering the process–and the goal is to succeed. Rather than focusing only on the what, great leaders also focus on the how. If aspiring leaders are too driven to succeed, they may lose sight of what is most important. They become so enamored with success that they avoid failure. What was once considered a strength, eventually becomes a detriment. The more success they achieve, the more failure becomes unthinkable–and the downward spiral begins.
The Failure Paradox And Its Irony
The truth is every great leader makes mistakes. Unfortunately, there are only a limited number of mistakes you can make before proving yourself an unworthy leader–you can only fall off the corporate ladder so many times before your climb is finished. And the higher you get, the more severe the fall. The failure paradox is that in order to succeed we need to know failure.
And here is the irony. There are critically important lessons to be learned from failures.
Yet we live in an environment where we can’t afford to make mistakes. As George Ruebenson, former President of Allstate Protection told us, great leaders have an innate ability to learn by observing key takeaways from others’ mistakes. He credits much of his success as a leader to the observations he made of others’ mistakes early in his career. Bottom line: Great leaders have the ability to learn the tough lessons–without paying the price.
Larry Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey are coauthors of The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price.
Larry is an endowed professor of management at Bradley University. He is an internationally recognized speaker and advisor to numerous Fortune 100 companies on issues relating to strategy and leadership.
Jim is an experienced CEO, sought-after business development and community leadership expert, and an active fund manager for venture and early-stage capital investments. Jim’s particular focus is working with small to mid-size organizations to identify and evaluate strategic growth opportunities.
[Image: Flickr user Rana Ossama]