Grateful for the Fall? Three Lessons to Learn from Failure

Gratitude. All around you people are listing the things for which they are grateful. A warm glow emanates from them. After all, there’s something warm and fuzzy about appreciating what you have, what you’ve achieved, and where you’re headed. Right? Except right now you’re having trouble feeling the love. That bright idea you’ve been nursing and pursing all year is a big flop. It’s hard to feel gracious when you’re disappointed that your plans are D.O.A. It’s not helping that the well-meaning around you are quoting Winston Churchill, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” and Dale Carnegie, “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” In truth, those folks are right. The path to success is often littered with attempts that didn’t quite make it off the ground. Of course, determining whether the flop before you is a set-back or a full-stop takes more than platitudes and good intentions. You’re going to have to take the time to fully assess the situation and draw its lessons out. Here’s the good news: Even if you’re reached the end of this goal, there’s still something beneficial to take away from the aborted attempt.


The Wright brothers began their aeronautical research and experimentation in 1899. They built. They trialed. They analyzed what worked and what did not. In 1903 their first successful airplane left the ground. Two years later the first practical plane was airborne. When the brothers’ 1900 and 1901 gliders failed to operate as expected, they didn’t walk away and deem the task impossible, nor did they continue to pursue their goals from the same approach. Instead, they built a wind tunnel and conducted experiments. For the Wright brothers, failure was a stepping stone. The trial and error helped them zero in on success. Today’s aircraft, as well as submarines and robots, use the same concepts Orville and Wilbur developed to control their aircraft: controls to roll the wings right or left, pitch the nose up and down, and yaw the nose from side to side.


In 1978, James Dyson was just a guy with an idea to improve the vacuum. He developed 5,000 prototypes in 3 years before approaching a long list of manufacturers he’d hope would license his invention. Each potential partner had the same response for him: “No.” He was told, “There’s no market for a bagless vacuum.” James disagreed, and he kept looking for the partner that saw things his way. In 1986, he found that partner in the Japanese company Apex. In the 1990s, James opted to go back out on his own with the machine. He faced more hurdles, but he didn’t quit. In 2002, the Dyson vacuum was introduced to the US. Today, James Dyson leads a $3 billion vacuum cleaner empire. He had a product he believed in and he stuck with it until others believed in it too. The failed idea you’re nursing today may not be the success you look back on with pride decades from now, but the lessons you take away from this attempt can help you discern what projects are worth holding fast to and which ones you’re ready to walk away from.


At what point in your process did the wheels fall off? Before you leave this attempt behind, take a good look at your approach, from your planning through your execution. What can you do better next time? Did you anticipate the hurdles you met? Did you have a contingency plan to deal with them? Take the time to honestly examine the process details. Decide if you’ll try again - better prepared this time - or if you’ll simply apply these lessons to your next venture. Either way, don’t let this failed mission off the hook without gleaning something useful from it. As an example, Bill Gates & Paul Allen’s first entrepreneurial attempt, the Traf-O-Data 8008, was an abject failure. Literally. When presenting their device to a potential customer, the demo failed. That wasn’t the end of the story, however. Gates and Allen had something to learn from the experience. Allen has been quoted as saying, “Even though Traf-O-Data wasn't a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft's first product a couple of years later."