Learning From Failure

According to legend, it took Thomas Edison 1,000 tries to invent the light bulb. In other words, he failed a whopping 999 times before he reached success. (Not surprising, considering that he was working on his invention in the dark!)

Soon after Edison revealed his earth-shattering invention, a French reporter asked, “Mr. Edison, how did it feel to fail 999 times?” As the story goes, Thomas Edison just smiled and replied, “Young man, I have not failed 999 times. I have simply found 999 ways how not to create a light bulb.”

In other words, Thomas Edison learned from his mistakes—and he refused to be discouraged by those 999 botched experiments. Most mortals would have given up much sooner. Yet each failure taught Edison something important
that allowed him to go back and tweak the process or switch out the components until he finally got it right.

I myself have failed many times in my career, but one particularly painful failure always stands out in my mind. It all started when I was hired to develop a brand new product line for two very big name customers.

At the very outset, my boss told me that the company knew this was a high-risk project. However, the project had the potential to lead to all kinds of opportunities—we could build a whole new part of our business around this product.

Because I had experience in this particular area, they really wanted me to lead this development team. So, I decided to come aboard and take on the challenge.

I worked on the project and led the team for about two years. However, at the end of that arduous two-year period, I came to an alarming realization: we were not going to succeed. We just weren’t going to pull it off. Even though we had made some progress and created some headway in this new area, in the end our customers were not supportive of what we had created.

I had to conclude that this two-year project was a failure. And this was something new to me. Up until that point, I had enjoyed one career success after another. So I was thinking, “Gee, maybe I should leave the company. I’ll never be able to do anything else here. I’m a failure.”

You see, when we fail, we tend to personalize it. That’s exactly what I did. In my mind, it wasn’t that the project failed—I failed. I spent about two months feeling really miserable. I was trying to figure out what to do, and I talked to my wife about it every night.

Eventually, I realized that the company did not see me as a failure. As a matter of fact, they followed through on their original promise. They told me from the very beginning that this was a risky project, but they still wanted to give it a shot—and if it didn’t turn out to be successful, it would be okay and we would learn from it. And that’s exactly what happened.

In the end, instead of running away from the failure, I embraced it as an essential step in my learning process. I decided to stay with the company, and I went on to become the VP of Product Development, then the General Manager for the largest business unit and eventually the Executive VP of the entire organization.

It was a great experience. And had I not embraced failure, had I run from it instead of learning from it, I never would have been as successful as I was at the company.

I think there are two lessons here: One is that leaders really need to stick to their promises. For example, when an organization says, “We view this as risky, and if it doesn’t work out it’s going to be okay,” they really need to follow through with that. As a leader in your organization, you need to nurture an environment where an employee can fail without it having negative consequences on her career.

Secondly, any employee or individual who leads a failed project needs to embrace that failure as an essential step in the learning process. Success is not a linear journey—most leaders do not have careers that advance in a straight line.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the people who have been the most successful in life and in business are the people who have failed the most. Therefore, your ability to fail is directly related to your long-term success.

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