Failure as an opportunity

Visionaries

Fail again. Fail better.

Not every vision becomes a reality. Dreams burst like soap bubbles, and carefully crafted plans for the future fail because true life simply will not stick to them.

Some ideas are simply ahead of their time, such as the Apple Newton, a PDA (Personal Data Assistant), that in 1993 already had, except for a telephone and mobile internet, many of the features of a smartphone. But it failed in the end due to its faulty character detection. The Newton is not a unique case: Some 80 to 90 % of product innovations fail. In Sweden’s Helsingborg, there is even a museum dedicated to them which exhibits flops like toothpaste that tastes like lasagna (Colgate). On the other hand, it is probably extremely lucky that the Ford Nucleon (1958), with an atomic reactor in the trunk, never made it onto the streets. In the worst cases, visionaries must count the failure of their dreams with lives, such as the crashed aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal or the polar explorer John Franklin, who disappeared with all hands on the ice in 1845 while searching for the Northwest Passage.

Failure often sticks us with the stigma of defeat and weakness. In other countries, this is not the case. An indicator for a completely different culture of failure can be seen in the much higher number of start-up companies in the more open USA, which stands in stark contrast to the more inhibited spirit of innovation in Germany.

Aviation shows how valuable it is to handle failures openly. In the 1970s, we found out that there is an error every four minutes on aircraft. In response, a code of conduct was formulated. Since then, the cockpit has indicated errors, material and neutral, without blame. This information is provided regardless of the hierarchy and with a simple thank you. Chains of errors that lead to catastrophes are prevented. As a result, the risk of being killed in a plane crash has fallen: from 133 in one million in 1965 to just two in one million today.

And who even actually says that failure has to be bad? Failures usually mean something good. The chemist Spencer Silver may have failed in developing a superglue, but he laid the foundations for the triumph of the adhesive label with the exceptionally poor sticking power of his experiment. Even more important was a small negligent act on the part of the doctor Alexander Fleming, who left out and forgot about a petri dish containing taphylococcus before going on vacation. When he returned, a mold was growing quickly on the agar plate, but the bacteria had disappeared: Fleming had discovered penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, which would later save millions of people’s lives. In both of these examples, failures led to the birth of groundbreaking innovations. Which is also why we should understand failure as an excellent opportunity.

Forging new paths now means taking on risks. This may seem frightening in the short run, but it is the only way to acquire new perspectives. Instead of wanting to avoid failure at any price, one should view failure as a valuable way to learn. Avoiding failure at any cost means gridlock and defeat in a constantly changing world.

And when it still happens? Then one should analyze the failing critically, without looking for blame or guilt. It does not help in any way to look back and focus on unchangeable facts. The goal is to identify the real problems and consider solutions and consequences for the future. The goal is also to let go, accept the failure, take responsibility for the error, and change one’s own actions. By looking forward, one can then focus on new goals. Fear of failure is by the way out of place, because constantly thinking about mistakes inevitably leads to to new mistakes.

Changes No. 7

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