Image: Wikimedia Commons

Taking a look at failure

It’s hardly unusual, I suppose, to be heading into term three as a uni student and having the fear of failure in the back of your mind. It’s inevitable, at some point in our lives, that we will fail – be it in exams, job interviews, sports, or games. Take your pick, and you’ll never nail it 100% all of the time. Most of the time, this doesn’t matter – if you fail to win a friendly football game, you can pick the ball up and look forward to the next match. But some of these failures feel big (sometimes justifiably so), and the fear of failure can hold us back to an almost paralysing extent – so what should we do? How should we think about failure?

Throughout history, people have got things wrong, and some of these failures are significant enough to become major stories. During the siege of Constantinople in 1453, a group of the entrenched Byzantines forgot to lock all of the gates around the city, allowing the invading Turks easy access to pour in and crush their empire. Famously, a lookout on the Titanic’s maiden voyage forgot to bring binoculars to the crow’s nest to spot icebergs, and we all know how that story panned out.

The main point is that we have to accept failure, because it usually takes several iterations before we get things right – most experiments fail

Not every historical failure is quite so deadly, of course. In 1990, NASA spent $1.5 billion to build and launch the Hubble Space Telescope, and didn’t realise that it took blurry photos until it was in space. The French government thought it had made a brilliant investment when it bought 2,000 new trains cheap in 2014, only to learn that they were too big for 1,300 of its stations. It then had to spend $60 million to widen the platforms. And feel for James Howells, an IT worker who threw away an old hard drive containing 7,500 nearly worthless Bitcoins in 2013 – if he’d kept it, he could have made $50 million.

It’s worth noting that one of the reasons we love stories of historical failure is because the big ones are rare among the stories of historical success. We’ve wound up where we are as a society because things have worked – there would have been many failures on the way to the computer, say, but we know the endpoint of this story. Those devices and inventions that worked first time are a handful among billions.

I recently wrote an article about the Museum of Failure, which collects “failed products and services from around the world” to provide an experience about failed innovation. The motivation for the exhibit, curated by Dr Samuel West, was to help tackle the fact that fear of failure serves as an obstacle to innovation: “The whole aim of the museum is to help people recognise that we need to accept failure if we want progress. And by that, I mean any kind of progress, not just consumer products and new devices. The main point is that we have to accept failure, because it usually takes several iterations before we get things right – most experiments fail.

“And then the second point – which I try to make money off of, with varying degrees of success – is to emphasise that companies in particular have to be better at learning from their failures. A corollary is that it is not cool just to ‘fail fast’, as they like to say in Silicon Valley. Or to ‘move fast and break things’, or any of those clichés. Yes, it’s okay to fail, but you have to learn something from the experience.”

In 1878, Thomas Edison began working on a commercially-viable incandescent lightbulb that would be both long-lasting and highly efficient, and he had to go through thousands of iterations to make this dream a reality. He was at one point asked by a reporter whether he felt like a failure after so many failed attempts to figure out the lightbulb. His brilliant response was this: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

This is true of many famous people, who failed before finally managing to succeed. When you enjoy a KFC, know that Colonel Sanders’ attempts to run restaurants and perfect his secret recipe collapsed in the face of external difficulties until he was 65. Stephen King had so many rejection letters on his wall that the nails could not support them. Sir Winston Churchill failed his Sandhurst entrance exam twice, and lost a total of five elections during his political career. Katy Perry came from an impoverished background, and missed three chances to make it big before the release of ‘I Kissed a Girl’ due to record label difficulties. I could throw out hundreds of other examples, but the point is clear – failure is often part of the process towards finally succeeding.

Of course, this is easier said than done, so how do we practice re-evaluating failure in our own lives? Firstly, you need to acknowledge that you will fail, at things big and small. I failed my first driving test. I play pool, and I’m probably above average, but I’m still prone to losing badly. No matter how much I try, I can’t crack juggling. But none of these things really matter, you understand? I got my licence on the second try. If I lose at pool, I just come back on the next game. And juggling is unlikely to happen, but I have fun with it.

I would not have been a French student, and certainly nowhere near finishing my PhD, if I hadn’t completely failed first

There’s a wonderful quote by Charlie Chaplin, who said: “Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” It will feel bad, and it probably should. According to a 2017 study by the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making: “Allowing yourself to feel bad is motivating. It can help you work harder to find better solutions so that you’ll improve next time.” Learning to cope with failure is a process, and developing the emotional resilience to respond in a healthy way takes time – and, sadly, often a few failures along the road. The real challenge is to see failure as a teacher, a stepping stone toward your goals rather than a burden.

There is one other key element of this discussion to bring out. If you think of failure as simply being unable to succeed, then ask yourself this – what is success? In a good piece by Carley Sime, there’s a piece of advice to base success and failure around your own internal values. This way, succeeding is a matter is remaining true to yourself, and you may be able to take successes out of situations where traditionally failure was the only option. Sime’s piece is about giving yourself more flexibility, transitioning from a view of success that compares you with others to one that prioritises the things that matter to you. To my mind, that’s a beautiful way to tackle these concepts.

Let me wrap up with a personal story. When I came to Warwick in 2013, I was a Maths and Stats student with big ambitions – pumped up on a diet of books about the Millennium Prize problems, I was going to make a major breakthrough and even win a Fields Medal. Suffice to say, I didn’t. Ambition met reality. There were issues with the course and admin, yes, but it’s also true that I wasn’t good enough – I fell behind, I stopped putting the work in, and I realising it wasn’t going to work. Bluntly, I failed. But this failure gave me the chance to reflect on the things that mattered to me, and to move into a new field that worked for me and made me happy. I would not have been a French student, and certainly nowhere near finishing my PhD, if I hadn’t completely failed first.

Sure, failure can be a real kick in the teeth – I was so miserable that first year, it was untrue. But, like with all the examples in this article, failure is only the lasting legacy if you allow it to be. So don’t see failure as the final word – see it as a step on the way to success, and whatever comes next.


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