Failure. Fear of it is universal, experiencing it is inevitable, and running from it is dependably routine. As a culture we can’t seem to shake the negativity of the term – even though most success stories have a shared foundation in some kind of accidental realization, wrong-footed first attempt, or outright error. Here, we pool our favorite videos and articles on the subject as a gentle reminder that our only real failure is to live life without it.
This brief TED talk by “Wrongologist” and author Kathryn Schulz cleverly covers the inescapable error of the human mind – and the beautiful results of its imperfection.
The US’s bestselling vacuum isn’t just a perfect example of rethinking the norm, it’s the happy result of failure – 5,126 of them. The relentless inventor behind the company comes clean in this interview, attributing his comfy relationship with getting it wrong to finally getting it right.
You once described the inventor’s life as “one of failure.” How so?
I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.
Not all failures lead to solutions, though. How do you fail constructively?
We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You’re on it, and you can’t get off. I spent seven years on our washing machine [which has two drums, instead of one].
Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coehlo shares his personal views on confidence in the face of critical response. This comes from a series of awesome videos on failure from Berghs’ Exhibition 2011. We highly recommend the watching the lot of them.
One of America’s most celebrated living choreographers, Twyla Tharp is also a keen observer of the creative habit – in fact, she wrote the book on it. From Tharp’s point of view, failure is a natural part of the path to innovation. Here’s an excerpt from an excellent interview with the Harvard Business Review:
The business literature nowadays talks a lot about the need for failure in the pursuit of excellence. Do you accept that?
Of course I do. Sooner or later, all real change involves failure—but not in the sense that many people understand failure. If you do only what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion. True failure is a mark of accomplishment in the sense that something new and different was tried. Ideally, the best way to fail is in private. In my ofﬁce, the ratio of failure to success on the dances I create is probably something like six to one. I create about six times more material for my dances than I end up using in the ﬁnal piece. But I need that unused material to get my one success. I have also sometimes failed in public, and that’s very painful. But failing, even in this way, is not useless. It can force you to get yourself together and to produce something new.
In this classic talk from the inaugural 99% Conference, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin talks about the lizard brain, the root of the primal doubts that drive us to sabotage creative projects before we ever show them to the world.
Playing devil’s advocate to an upbeat view of failure, educator Jamer Hunt takes a look at the shades of gray, separating the truly beneficial mistakes from those failures that might indicate a darker, deeper flaw – for instance, the BP oil spill.
This is the really dark one. It marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum’s Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.
It cuts — deeply — but it doesn’t permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: Apple iPhone 4’s antenna; Windows Vista.
Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory — catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.
Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; forgetting to pick up your kids from school; overcooking the tuna.
Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.
Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.
Sometimes the things we call failures are really just lessons in letting go. In this video, acclaimed musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings collaborate with an artist and a specialty printing group to make an album cover, learning to conspire with their changing circumstances along the way.
Economics writer Tim Harford believes that all great leaps forward emerge through trial and error. In this TED talk, he articulates the challenges of admitting our own fallibility. Rather than striving to be an all-knowing God, he argues that we should strive to make good mistakes.
In this now-legendary commencement address, the inimitable J.K. Rowling discusses how failure, while certainly not fun, helps us strip away the inessential so that we can focus our energies on what really matters.