How to Become a Successful Failure

You can learn to bounce back when things don’t go your way.

Posted Sep 17, 2015

Failure lurks everywhere. Nearly half of all new businesses fail within four years. About three-quarters of students who apply to top colleges aren’t accepted. More than 90% of people who resolve to lose weight fail to do so. No matter how carefully we calculate our odds and make our decisions, failure is one of the constants in life.

Any time we try to make a change in our lives, we have to learn how to deal with failure. Whatever obstacle we try to overcome, whether emotional, spiritual, moral, or physical, chances are that we won’t be able to do it on the first try or the second. Sometimes not even on the twentieth try. The real question is how we deal with our failures. Do we accept them as opportunities to adjust our approach and try again, to risk trying to learn, to grow, to develop in new ways? Or do we take our failures as crushing blows to our character and give up, settling instead for small, safe lives? 

In his book titled Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Invention and Discovery, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes an interview with the inventor Jacob Rabinow, an electrical engineer who holds more than two hundred patents for inventions in the fields of optical character recognition technology, mail-sorting machinery, and electric motors. In the interview, Rabinow specifies three things you need to overcome the status quo. First, he says, you need to have a tremendous amount of information—an enormous database. If you are a musician, you need to know a lot about music and to have heard many, many different pieces. If you were born on a desert island and have never heard a piece of music, you are not likely to become a Chely Wright or a Greg Graffin.

Second, you need the motivation to work with the information you have at hand, play with it over a long period of time, pull the data apart and put it back together in new and different ways, even strange and unusual ways. The point is to use what is already there to create something entirely new. And volume counts. You need to create a lot of music, generate a lot of ideas, write a lot of poetry, and produce a lot of whatever. It’s true that some of it will be junk. But you cannot decide beforehand to think only of good ideas or to write only beautiful music. In order to give yourself a chance to produce something good or even great once in a while, you have to produce a lot of trash as well.

But the trash has to be thrown out straightaway: that’s Rabinow’s third point. There is no point in spending time pursuing further options that are bound to fail. Part of knowing which ideas are promising and which are not has to do with knowledge and experience—which is another reason why the large database is important in the first place. The bottom line, according to Rabinow, is that you need a very large wastebasket in order to create something good. You have to be willing to fail many times in order to succeed even once.

Thomas Edison, midway through the more than ten thousand experiments which eventually led to the invention of the light bulb, was famously asked by a journalist why he persisted in his experiments after having failed so often. “Young man,” Edison reportedly replied, “You don’t understand. I have not failed at all. I have successfully identified five thousand ways that will not work. That puts me five thousand ways closer to finding the way that will work.”

I’m not suggesting that would-be college students should apply to thousands of colleges or that a would-be entrepreneur should start dozens of companies. But the path from where we are to where we want to be will have some twists and turns along the way, even some dead ends. Significant success is often an indirect consequence of the willingness to accommodate significant failure. In other words, failure is not the great bugaboo in life. Quitting is the great bugaboo.

Whether you have failed—or even how often you have failed—isn’t important. What matters most is whether you keep trying. Set aside what isn’t working, and take a different path.