There is No Such Thing as Failure
Learn to fail in order to succeed.
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.
The Greatest Mistakes of All Time
I've picked my favorite mistakes from history, science, and folklore. Some are familiar. We already know, for instance, that Christopher Columbus meant to sail to Asia, not America.
And where would Cinderella be had she not dropped her glass slipper? Cleaning the fireplace, that's where. (By the way, did you know that the original Cinderella story had her wearing a fur shoe? A French writer made a mistake when he wrote the story down in 1697, confusing two homonyms vair, an Old French word for fur, and verre, which is French for glass. But it was a good mistake, making for much more romantic story, and much better fashion.)
Coca Cola was the result of another delicious accident. In 1886 a pharmacist named John Pemberton cooked up a medicinal syrup in a large brass kettle slung over an open fire, stirring it with an oar. When he was done, he figured he had created a fine tonic for people who were tired, nervous, or plagued with sore teeth.
He and his assistant mixed it with ice water, sipped it, and proclaimed it tasty. They wanted some more, and the assistant accidentally used carbonated water to mix the second batch. Voila! Instead of medicine, these men had created a fizzy beverage one that is now consumed around the world.
Today people guzzle 1 billion drinks a day from the Coca Cola company (they make more than Coke). Even more encouraging for us everyday screw ups: This new beverage wasn't an instant success. In the first year, Pemberton spent $73.96 promoting his new product but managed to sell only $50 worth.
Yellow sticky notes, officially known as Post it Notes, got their start in 1968 when a 3M researcher tried to improve adhesive tape. What he got was a semisticky adhesive not exactly what you want out of tape. Even so, he knew he had something cool he just didn't know what to do with it.
Four years later, another 3M scientist was getting frustrated. This scientist was a member of his church choir, and he kept dropping the bookmarks stuck in his hymnal. What he needed was something that would stick without being too sticky something just like that weak glue his colleague had accidentally created. In 1980 the Post it Note became an official product and a huge hit.
Another 3M scientist came up with a cool substance called Scotchgard, which helps prevent dirt from staining fabric. But that wasn't what she set out to create: Scotchgard grew out of an attempt to make a synthetic rubber to be used in airplane fuel lines. One day some of the new substance spilled on her assistant's canvas shoe, and they couldn't get it off. As the tennis shoe grew older, it got dingy everywhere except where the substance had spilled. It took three more years of tinkering, but they had their Scotchgard.
Rubber got its name when English scientist Joseph Priestley discovered that a wad of it was good at "rubbing out" pencil mistakes on paper. But the rubber really hit the road literally when someone figured out how to stabilize it for use in boots, tires, and the like. The problem was that rubber melted if it got too hot and shattered if it got too cold.
A colorful character named Charles Goodyear tried to fix this problem in several ways, but it wasn't until (according to legend) he accidentally dropped a blob of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove that he found something that worked. Goodyear denied this was a mistake, but the point is that he had the savvy to know he was on to something good.
Rubber shortages during World War II prompted the U.S. government to look for a synthetic rubber. It seemed like a good idea to try to make this substitute for rubber out of something plentiful, and researchers eventually settled on silicon, the second most common element on Earth. An inventor at General Electric added a little boric acid to silicon oil and developed a gooey, bouncy substance.
This substance failed as a substitute for rubber, but after the war it became an extremely popular toy known as Silly Putty. Apollo 8 astronauts later used it to stabilize their tools in zero gravity. (The astronauts carried their Silly Putty in sterling silver eggs.) Today, Binney & Smith (the company that makes Silly Putty) produces 20,000 eggs' worth of Silly Putty a day.
Some errors have saved lives. Before Wilson Greatbatch came along, people with irregular heartbeats had to control their pulse using a sometimes painful external device invented in 1952 by Paul Zoll. The external pacemaker was about the size of a small television, and administered lifesaving jolts of electricity, which sometimes burned the skin.
Greatbatch, a medical researcher, was working on a device to record irregular heartbeats when he accidentally inserted a resistor of the wrong size. He noticed that the circuit pulsed, stopped, and pulsed again just like a human heart.
After two years of tinkering, Greatbatch had made the first implantable pacemaker. He later invented a corrosion free lithium battery to power it, and millions have benefited.
Penicillin is another famous example of a mistake turned good. In 1928 scientist Alexander Fleming noticed that mold spores had contaminated one of the bacteria samples he had left by an open window. Instead of discarding his ruined experiment, Fleming took a close look and noticed the mold was dissolving the harmful bacteria. And that's how we got penicillin, which helps people around the world recover from infections.
This brings to mind a powerful quote by scientist Louis Pasteur, "Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind," and another, by writer James Joyce, "Mistakes are the portals for discovery."
Michael Michalko is the author of Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work, Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-thinking Technique, Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, and ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. http://www.creativethinking.net