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Be Like Henry Ford: Apprentice Yourself In Failure

Want to make the Model T of your generation? Then take a closer look at the hard-knock story of Henry Ford's early string of abject failures.

One day in 1885, the twenty-three-year old Henry Ford got his first look at the gas-powered engine, and it was instant love. Ford had apprenticed as a machinist and had worked on every conceivable device, but nothing could compare to his fascination with this new type of engine, one that created its own power. He envisioned a whole new kind of horseless carriage that would revolutionize transportation. He made it his Life’s Task to be the pioneer in developing such an automobile.

Working the night shift at the Edison Illuminating Company as an engineer, during the day he would tinker with the new internal-combustion engine he was developing. He built a workshop in a shed behind his home and started constructing the engine from pieces of scrap metal he salvaged from anywhere he could find them. By 1896, working with friends who helped him build a carriage, he completed his first prototype, which he called the Quadricycle, and debuted it on the streets of Detroit.

At the time there were many others working on automobiles with gas powered engines. It was a ruthlessly competitive environment in which new companies died by the day. Ford’s Quadricycle looked nice and ran well, but it was too small and incomplete for large scale production. And so he began work on a second automobile, thinking ahead to the production end of the process. A year later he completed it, and it was a marvel of design. Everything was geared toward simplicity and compactness. It was easy to drive and maintain. All that he needed was financial backing and sufficient capital to mass produce it.

To manufacture automobiles in the late 1890s was a daunting venture. It required a tremendous amount of capital and a complex business structure, considering all of the parts that went into production. Ford quickly found the perfect backer: William H. Murphy, one of the most prominent businessmen in Detroit. The new company was dubbed the Detroit Automobile Company, and all who were involved had high hopes. But problems soon arose. The car Ford had designed as a prototype needed to be reworked—the parts came from different places; some of them were deficient and far too heavy for his liking. He kept trying to refine the design to come closer to his ideal. But it was taking far too long, and Murphy and the stockholders were getting restless. In 1901, a year and a half after it had started operation, the board of directors dissolved the company. They had lost faith in Henry Ford.

In analyzing this failure, Ford came to the conclusion that he had been trying to make his automobile serve too many consumer needs. He would try a second time, starting out with a lightweight and smaller vehicle. He convinced Murphy to give him another chance, something rare in the fledgling automobile business. Still believing in Ford’s genius, he agreed, and together they formed the Henry Ford Company. Right from the start, however, Ford felt the pressure from Murphy to get the automobile ready for production so as to avoid the problems he’d had with the first company. Ford resented the interference from people who knew nothing about design or the high standards he was trying to establish for the industry. Murphy and his men brought in an outsider to supervise the process.

This was the breaking point. Less than a year after its establishment, Ford left the company. The break with Murphy this time was final. In the car business, everyone wrote Henry Ford off. He had blown his two chances and nobody was ever given a third, not with the amount of money at stake. But to friends and family, Ford himself seemed blithely unconcerned. He told everyone that these were all invaluable lessons to him—he had paid attention to every glitch along the way, and like a watch or an engine, he had taken apart these failures in his mind and had identified the root cause: no one was giving him enough time to work out the bugs. The people with money were meddling in mechanical and design affairs. They were injecting their mediocre ideas into the process and polluting it. He resented the idea that having money gave them certain rights, when all that mattered was a perfect design.

The answer was to find a way to maintain complete independence from the financiers. This was not the usual way of doing business in America, which was becoming increasingly bureaucratic. He would have to invent his own form of organization, his own business model, one that suited his temperament and needs—including an efficient team he could trust, and the right to the final word on every decision.

Considering his reputation, it would be almost impossible to find backing, but several months into the search he found an ideal partner—Alexander Malcomson, an émigré from Scotland who had made his fortune in the coal business. Like Ford, he had an unconventional streak and was a risk taker. He agreed to finance this latest venture and to not meddle in the manufacturing process. Ford worked at creating a new kind of assembly plant that would give him more control over the car he wanted to design, now known as the Model A. The Model A would be the lightest car ever made, simple and durable. It was the culmination of all of his tinkering and designing. It would be assembled along a line that would ensure speed of production.

With the assembly plant ready, Ford worked hard at getting the team of workers to churn out fifteen cars a day—a rather high number back then. He oversaw every aspect of the production—it was his car from the inside out. He even worked on the assembly line, endearing himself to the workers. Orders started pouring in for the well-made yet inexpensive Model A, and by 1904 the Ford Motor Company had to expand its operations. Soon it would be one of the few survivors from the early era of the automobile business, and a giant in the making.

Think of it this way: There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done. In fact, it is a curse to have everything go right on your first attempt. You will fail to question the element of luck, making you think that you have the golden touch. When you do inevitably fail, it will confuse and demoralize you past the point of learning. In any case, to apprentice as an entrepreneur you must act on your ideas as early as possible, exposing them to the public, a part of you even hoping that you’ll fail. You have everything to gain.

This excerpt is from Mastery by Robert Greene. The excerpt is reprinted with permission from Viking Press.

Robert Greene is the author of the international bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, and The 50th Law. His highly anticipated fifth book, Mastery, examines the lives of great historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Mozart, Paul Graham and Henry Ford and distills the traits and universal ingredients that made them masters. He has a strong following within the business world and a deep following in Washington, DC.

[Image: Flickr user The Henry Ford]