The Uses of Failure

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. 
-Thomas Edison
We’ve all heard it before: failure is the path to success! Or something like it, and it’s supposed to make you feel, what? Better? Does it? And what does that really mean?

Part of the problem is that the word failure covers a lot of ground. Today, it even passes for entertainment. Laugh at people’s failures, post them on your Facebook page, share them with your friends… One thing the Fail Blog makes clear is that there are a million ways to fail,
and a myriad of ways to succeed.

To put it in the language of art, you fail in pursuit of a perfection that you will never attain. Oh noble failure. Honestly, this does not do it for me as a writer.

I think it’s better to use failure the way an inventor or a scientist does. When an experiment fails you examine your results and adjust your methods and run it again. Keep what works and throw out what doesn’t. Learn, grow, innovate, refine. Rinse & repeat.


The arrows on these signs should be pointing in the SAME direction.
Part of what inspired this post is Neal Stephenson’s excellent essay Innovation Starvation, which is a big picture look at what I would call a collective failure of nerve. 

Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable. Possible outcomes that the modern mind identifies as serious risks might not have been taken seriously—supposing they were noticed at all—by people habituated to the Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War, in times when seat belts, antibiotics, and many vaccines did not exist.

Creating, honestly creating, involves both mastering craft and breaking new ground. The world you inhabit while you are creating should feel just as dangerous and unstable as the world that gave birth to the space race and all the fabulous innovation that it brought to our world. You just have to keep trying, failing, trying to get better, to keep putting yourself out there. In the words of Samuel Beckett –

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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