I live in a lovely city in southwest Florida, which was the winter home of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are an honored landmark here. We have an annual festival of lights, and the Estates are highly decorated and lit up during Christmas. Our children all know from an early age of this prolific inventor whose home they drive by and visit during the holidays and on field trips. Therefore, when I saw that today’s habit was “see failure as opportunity,” my mind immediately went to Edison, who was famous for stating that he had not failed thousands of times, but had found thousands of ways that didn’t work.
Here are some fun failure facts about our local hero, Thomas Edison:
- Edison had 1,093 patents, but is most known for three: the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and of course, the light bulb. That’s hardly a failure, but the point is he worked on a lot things that didn’t land him in the history books.
- His greatest financial failure was his inability to create a separator that could extract iron from unusable, low-grade ores. He sold all his stock in General Electric to finance the endeavor, which never came to fruition.
- His first patent was a failure. He invented an automated vote-tally system, which he unsuccessfully tried to sell to Congress.
- It is said that Edison went through over 10,000 prototypes before getting a light bulb to work and over 9,000 experiments in devising a storage battery. However, according to Rutgers, no one ever counted the number of experiments Edison conducted. He did say in an interview, “I speak with no exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light.” Moreover, he famously responded to a statement about his lack of results with the battery, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset.” – Rabindranath Tagore, writer and Nobel Prize winner.
See, today’s habit is about reframing failure. Often, we fall into the trap of letting the outcome of one endeavor define our self-worth. Let’s learn from Edison how to flip this negative into a positive. It’s flipping from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset takes failure personally. To the fixed mind, mistakes are failures of ability, talent, and even morality. In a fixed mindset, you either have the talent or you don’t.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, recognizes that we can all grow from where we are. Growth mindset recognizes that the successful, in addition to their natural gifts, worked freaking hard and failed a lot to achieve what they have. Therefore, failures are not the end, but the beginning of the next attempt, and we don’t have to fear failure.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert Kennedy
So, we want to see failure as opportunity. An opportunity for what?
After his first patent was rejected by Congress, Edison declared he would never again “waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy.” He didn’t declare himself a poor inventor, although I like to think that he was human enough to have a moment or two of downheartedness. But, he went on to secure 1,092 other patents! He simply determined what the problem was with this first one, i.e. no one wanted such a machine, and adjusted his sails.
Edison’s dear friend and winter neighbor, Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Even those of us who are not trying to invent ground breaking technology need to adopt these two men’s tenacity, because there will be failures in life, professional and personal.
If we can take our failures and learn and grow from them, then we are continuing to improve our lives and move forward. Sitting and wallowing for long periods of time is not helpful in the long run. Reevaluate and start again with more information.
While I wouldn’t advocate negatively dwelling on failure, it is advisable to take some time to analyze what went wrong. Is this failure a sign that you need to move in a different direction, or do you need to just collect the new information and start again?
The lesson may be that you need to change course. However, only when we sit with our failure for a bit can we determine the difference between succumbing to fear and driving the wrong way on a one-way street.
Also, consider whether your expectations were realistic? I’ve noted that I started this 30 days of blogging to challenge myself. I’ve also noted that I’m not particularly good at keeping up with laundry. While challenging myself to write every day on this blog (not to mention, having my children home on summer break) would not have been the time to also decide I was going to do xyz goal on improving the laundry basket situation (and I assure you, it is a situation). Do I need to make the later a goal, yes, but I would have set myself up to fail if I had put that on my plate at this time.
When setting goals, don’t set yourself up for failure. We don’t ask a 10-month-old who has just started taking some wobbly steps to run a marathon. Be realistic, and when you fail because you weren’t, then readjust.
Be honest with yourself when you reflect on failure. What parts of the situation were truly in your control? Own up to your part, but don’t take more responsibility than is rightfully yours. If you do, then you’re needlessly beating yourself up.
You also don’t want to gloss over a mistake, because then you may end up repeating it. If you fail to be honest with yourself in evaluating the failure, you miss the opportunity to grow and learn from it.
Edison recognized with his voting machine that there were political factors at play, which had nothing to do with the quality of his invention. However, he owned up to not considering the marketability of his invention earlier.
“Make failure your fuel. … Failure is fuel. Fuel is power.” – Abby Wambach, retired American soccer player, coach, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion….and feminist badass.
All successful people fail. All people fail, period. It’s a matter of what you do with that failure. Do you see it as a reason to give up or as one way that didn’t work?
I leave you with the wise words of my favorite under-dog movie character, Rocky Balboa, “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and still move forward.”