The Art of Failing

The story is well-known and so are Thomas Edison’s words: “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

Those words, spoken or not, highlight the essence of “failing”. I use that word with some sense of disdain; for I am a firm believer in its non-existence – at least for me. Definition: Fail: “To be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal”. Thomas Edison would eventually discover a method, and the correct materials, to construct a long-life light bulb. He achieved his goal and so I see no failure in his method.

Too many times there are those who speak prematurely. A goal is the intended completion of a process set out at a previous time. This usually includes a “bar” or standard that will be met and will signify the meeting of that goal. The goal is at the end of a process – a journey. How, then, can someone label the process a “failure” if it is still in motion? The answer is that they cannot. The only person who has the ability to convert a process into a failure is the one who set the goal. How refreshing it is, then, to know that the only way that one can fail is if they choose to stop progressing towards their goal.

I have encountered this extensively in both my academic and professional careers. I have failed extensively in both, but I found that what is more important is not how much a person “fails” but rather how much that person sees things through – how they pick themselves up and keep moving. Out of my original group of post-secondary friends only a third ended up graduating from the Faculty of Engineering. I was one of them. I can confidently say that I was not the most naturally gifted of the group, but I was driven. I saw my goal and I wanted to meet it – be it hell or high water.

This quality is also prevalent in entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs have a higher threshold for risk. This means that they take chances. They may be calculated, but they are still risks. Sometimes those chances do not work in the favour of the risk-taker. Some may call these occasions a “failure”, but what an entrepreneur will tell you is that it was a learning experience. A life lesson. One way to not do it. Just one bulb in Edison’s 10,000.

When I find out that a “bulb design” didn’t work I don’t whine about all of the hard work it took to make it. I move on. I start designing the next bulb based on the lessons learned previously. This is a process, and I haven’t met my goal yet. But I will.