During all those years of experimentation and research, I never once made a discovery. All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention, pure and simple. I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable. Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved. This was the only possible way for me to work out the problem. … I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. Thomas Edison
Pondering on failure one cannot fail to be drawn to the experiences of men like Thomas Edison. I wonder what went on in his mind during the time he was working on inventing the electric light bulb. Did his failed theories cause him to consider quitting? Did he experience real despair along the way? What made him persevere till he found the solution?
Interestingly one of his other quotes may give us an insight:
‘Restlessness is discontent — and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man — and I will show you a failure.’
So Edison seemed to accept discontent and failure as a part of the process of innovation and invention. In fact he seems to suggest invention and innovation stem from discontent.
This is one of the reasons I feel it’s important to look at our attitudes to failure as it might just be that the more we accept failure as a natural and necessary process the more we increase our chances of success.
With his scientific mind Edison must have got himself out of bed each morning knowing that his odds of experiencing failure that particular day were extremely high, yet he carried on, he wasn’t deterred He discarded failed theories quickly and moved on to his next attempt.
I suppose it is easier to move through failure quickly when we have a clear idea of what we want to achieve. Edison knew he was working his way towards inventing the light bulb. He knew what he was after, what it was all about. Do you? Are you prepared to fail yet determined to persevere anyway? Is your goal or purpose strong enough? Are you discontented enough and can you channel that discontent productively? Do you even know what your own discontent is all about?
The majority of us are probably not inventors or certainly the majority of us are not going to invent something that changes the world but we all have ambitions and we all have goals, however ill defined they may currently be. So whatever you’re working towards right now, don’t give up, factor the possibility of failure into your plans, recognise it when it’s happened but don’t be deflected by it, don’t let it cripple you, don’t fall into despair, it’s part of life and it always will be. Every failure simply helps us to develop the resilience we need to succeed.
I’ll leave you with a final quote on failure from Thomas Edison and a couple of questions to consider.
‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.’
Do you have a productive attitude to failure?
Are you closer than you think?