Fail More, Win More

The single biggest blocker for creativity and original thought is fear. In our society, we are so focused on success and afraid of making mistakes that we don't pursue our dreams. Don't live life to our fullest potential. Don't let our creativity shine.

In school, we have classes on all sorts on functional skills such as science and math (by the way, when was the last time long division came in handy for you at work?). One skill that that few of us ever learn, however, is how to make mistakes: How to learn from setbacks. How to embrace failures to enable future successes. How to get up from being knocked down, and rise up with the confidence of the undefeated.

<a href=James Dyson" />James Dyson, the inventor of the Dyson Vacuum cleaner, "failed" at over 5,000 prototypes before getting it just right. In fact, nearly every breakthrough innovation came after countless setback, mistakes, and "failures". When you study the great innovators and achievers in history, it turns out that they weren't necessarily smarter or inherently more talented. They simply released their fear of failure and kept trying. They didn't let setbacks or misfires extinguish their curiosity and imagination.

I believe a required element of public school curriculum should include a class called MAKING MISTAKES. It would teach kids that mistakes are okay. That it is better to try and fail than never try at all. That every bull's eye is the result of 100 misses. It could help grow their confidence and resilience, and prepare them for the dynamic and constantly-changing world of the future. The course could be fun and funny. Maybe the goal is to "fail" the class instead of pass, and the students are rewarded and each mistake they make.

What is the tolerance for making mistakes at your company? Many organizations have mission statements filled with buzzwords about innovation, yet sharply penalize risk-taking and setbacks. The best creative ideas often come from experimentation. Rather than thinking of something that doesn't work immediately as a "failure," think about it as an experiment. Each experiment that doesn't work provides valuable insight, leading you one step closer to a solution that is perfect.

This week, gather your team and encourage failure. How about a contest for the best failure to let people know it is better to unleash their creativity, even if the end result isn't ideal? Why not issue an assignment to see who can come up with the most outrageous idea (instead of the safest)? Push your team to "fail", and you'll end up unleashing an abundance of creativity that you didn't even know existed. Building a culture that encourages risk-taking and celebrates "failure" as a step closer to breathtaking innovation will separate the top-performing companies from the also-rans.

Simply put: "Fail" more, win more.

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  • Andrew Cohn

    Winston Churchill said that "success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." In other words, we are successful if we can keep going despite "failure".
    I would suggest that even the word failure may be a misnomer: did Dyson fail all those times before he made it work? He might look at all his prior efforts as trial experiments, nothing "failed" or- even worse- "wrong".
    I agree that organizations need to celebrate learning; it is learning that leads to better results and more accurate and effective risk-taking. And I believe that in order to celebrate learning we need to personally demonstrate support for healthy risk-taking. The person who takes a good risk and does not succeed should be embraced and encouraged. That involves empathy and effective communication skills- which are often lacking in today's short-term-success focused environments.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post.
    Andrew Cohn

  • Michael Plishka

    Good article. What companies need to do, even more than celebrating failure, is celebrate learning. The reason that oftentimes companies are critical of failure (even if they claim to be innovative) is because they are acutely interested in results as opposed to learning, because results create immediate cashflow as opposed to possible future cashflow.

    Product development processes then, somewhat myopically(though perhaps understandably), focus on launch dates and meeting specifications. Failures are seen as obstacles to getting the 'right product' out 'on time', and they need to be overcome as quickly as possible. Successes are seized with zeal because they further the cause of getting the 'right product' out 'on time'. The problem with success in such an environment is that it short circuits the learning process resulting in what may be the second or third best solution being elevated to the optimal one.

    The result being that some type of 'innovation' will hit the market but at the expense of insights and knowledge poorly shared and built upon, and in fact, many times, lost forever.

    Thanks for the provocative post!
    Michael Plishka

  • Elisha Tan

    Hi Josh,

    While I do agree that fear is the biggest blocker of creativity and we are afraid to make mistakes, I think it is the fear of loss, of losing, that is the driving force rather that the fear of failure. Going against conventional methods of doing things may backfire and cause the loss of income, loss of job or even the loss of reputation/status.

    I would say that Dyson didn't give up because he was able to cope with the opportunity cost of him pursuing the invention rather than spending his time on, say, a proper job. This means that he was able to cope with the fear of loss.

    Following this logic, schools should teach kids how to handle the fear of loss, like how to take calculated risks, instead of encouraging them to make 'mistakes'.

    Best Regards,
    Elisha Tan