The Power of Failure

by admin on June 12, 2011

Have you noticed that failure seems to be a popular subject to talk and write about lately? Not the nasty-feeling-you-get-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach-when-something-you-have-been-working-on-for-ages-crashes-and-burns kind of failure, but the salutary lessons and life-affirming power of failure. Yeah, I’m not so sure I buy that either but read on.

It sucks because he did too

The first article I read lately about the importance of failure was by James Dyson in Newsweek, writing about the 5,000 mistakes he made on the way to creating the most popular vacuum cleaner in the world. He wrote that it didn’t really bother him too much – “I’m particularly adept at making mistakes – it’s a necessity as an engineer” – because with each mistake he learned something new and with each correction of each mistake his product got better.

In the end it worked out for him. He’s now a billionaire.

Then I was reading the Sunday New York Times and it had a series of excerpts of college commencement speeches given by the great and the good. Most of them seemed to go over very similar ground – essentially don’t be scared of making mistakes, because if you don’t push the limits of what you know you’ll never achieve anything worthwhile.

For instance, Daniel Akerson, the CEO at General Motors said “Acknowledge your mistakes, learn from then and move on. Don’t be afraid of new ideas; be afraid of old ones.”

Steve Blank, a technology entrepreneur talked about building up a business, hitting it big, then crashing, then starting all over again. “Honest failure is a badge of experience. All of you will fail at some time in your career, or in love or in life. No one ever sets out to fail. But being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.”

Even Tavis Smiley, the host of television and radio shows for which he interviews political leaders, artists and activists has a new book out called, “Fail Up” all about the lessons he has learned from failure which he says helped him to become a success!

If all this is true how come I’m not a huge success? My life is littered with failures, big and small, from failing to appreciate that the object in my rear view mirror was a lot closer as I tried to back my car into a parking space, to failing to keep my mouth shut when seeing a female acquaintance for the first time in months and asking “wow, congratulations, when is the baby due?” only to find out she wasn’t pregnant.

When I was in school and messed up on a test the teacher didn’t praise me and say my failure was evidence of great things, instead he wrote “It would be hard to do worse” (he did, honest – he was later arrested for child molestation – clearly evidence of a much bigger failing on his part)

At my many and various jobs I don’t recall any boss ever saying “Good job Kevin, this sucks. Well done.”

So, I guess I’m saying that while it’s all well and fine for folks to stand up there and tell college students that it’s grand and good and great to try and fail, the reality is that failure is never fun, and it’s never recognized as being important in its own right until many years later – and only then if you succeed big time.

Some people have an idea they are passionate about and work tirelessly to bring it to fruition, ignoring repeated failures and the advice of all their friends and colleagues that they should forget it. In the case of someone like James Dyson that single-minded determination to rise above those failures ends in triumph and fame and riches. But think about how many people have really bad ideas and really should stop and listen to their friends and try something new.

Knowing you have a great idea and purpose in life and following it is a wonderful thing. The problem occurs when you fail to realize that that’s not a description of you, that your idea really does suck. And not in a good way like the Dyson vacuum cleaner.



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Terrence Gargiulo June 17, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Along with humor and engaging audiences, it’s a challenge to offer a diverse audience a message that will resonate and leave them with gifts for their journey ahead.

Here’s an example of a storied approach to this challenge. A collage of stories is used to offer students three gifts for their journey (judgment, compassion, and mercy).


admin June 20, 2011 at 9:00 am

Thank you for your comment Terrence, people retain the lessons easier when presented as a story, it opens up the mind to new ideas and different perspectives
and the stories you told in your Santa Catalina Commencement Address is a testament to the power of storytelling.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: