Monday, January 25, 2010

Failure -- A Valuable Assistant

“There are no failures – just experiences and your reactions to them.” ~ Tom Krause

“I have not failed,” Thomas Edison once said, “I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” And he did indeed, but once he finally succeeded, he came up with one of the most valuable inventions of our time – incandescent lights.

In all truth, Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb – someone else had patented a similar invention fifty years earlier – but contrary to the first light bulbs which only lasted 150 hours, Edison was able to create a product which lasted 1200 hours, only about 300 hours less than the light bulbs we use today. Edison tried thousands of different substances in making the filament of an incandescent light bulb until he found one material that lasted long enough to make the light bulb cheap enough to sell. In 1879, he finally succeeded. He made a light bulb using carbonized filaments from cotton thread. The light bulb burned for two days. His bulbs were first installed on the steamship "Columbia" and later in a New York City factory. The first public demonstration of the Thomas Edison's incandescent lighting system was in December 1879, when the Menlo Park laboratory complex was electrically lighted. Edison spent the next several years creating the electric industry.

The light bulb wasn’t Thomas Edison’s only project. He worked on inventions previously discovered but never completed, and initiated other ideas which he never perfected himself but helped future inventors in their own work. His career was brightened by successful breakthroughs, but also laden with many failures, which he refused to acknowledge as such. In one of his famous statements, he asserted that there is no such thing as failure, but just results; some of those results are just not what one hopes to see.

And indeed he was right. The most fascinating part of his thinking is that he recognized the value of each experience as a step toward perfection. Each time we try something, our brain stores the data from our efforts and organizes it in two lists – one list of what works and one of what we should avoid in future attempts. Understanding what will help us succeed is important, but we shouldn’t underestimate the value of being familiar with whatever will hinder our journey – once we know what doesn’t work, we can bypass the obstacle at the next try, and reach the goal by a process of elimination.

Fear of failure is the greatest enemy of innovation, and it is quite common to choose stagnation over rejection. What we often don’t realize is that idleness caused by fear is the only failure one can encounter. Failure is the personal assistant to success.