It’s almost a cliché by now. Every book, every blog and every lecture by every entrepreneur seems to feature the same story: before the big lucky break that took that person to the top, they experienced a series of crushing, discouraging failures.
The takeaway from this is always the same old chestnut: don’t be afraid of failure and follow your dreams. But I think perhaps that’s overly simplistic. What truly distinguished these entrepreneurs and their successes was not that they weren’t afraid to fail, but rather that they learned from the failures that ultimately led to their successes.
Ultimately, it was their attitude of learning that inspired their success, not the failures themselves.
I believe that a failure to learn from failure itself can be a fatal blind spot for even the most driven of entrepreneurs. With all of the articles doing the rounds about the importance of failure, I want to use this post to take a serious look at a few amazing entrepreneurs who showed that a rigorous and insatiable drive to experiment and learn was what ultimately brought them success.
In my eyes, being unafraid to fail is all well and good… but being unafraid to learn is even better.
1. Thomas Edison
Let’s start with one of the most famous entrepreneurs of all time – Thomas Edison: polymath, inventor and proto marketer. Perhaps more than any other figure, Thomas Edison embodies all the classic qualities of the American entrepreneur – optimism, pragmatism and hard work.
Despite the many chronicled successes he enjoyed, Edison also had his share of failures. And probably his most colossal failure was what led to his most famous success: the light bulb. The road to this invention was long and hard – it took Edison and his team over 1,000 tries to get the light bulb right.
A reporter famously once asked Edison, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?”
Edison even more famously replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times – the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
This statement speaks volumes about Edison’s attitude to failure. He didn’t view failure as an obstacle that prevented innovation, but rather as a reality that should be expected and embraced.
He succeeded in the end because he had an attitude of learning from his idea’s conception to its eventual validation. He saw each light bulb before that final 1,000th successful one as an opportunity to experiment with and refine his approach. Each failure added up coherently to the final success of a functioning light bulb.
What you should take away from this is that if every failure you encounter sees you flailing randomly from one idea to the next, you’re not really learning anything from your failures, and therefore the value of that failure is almost nil.
Consider this your lightbulb moment: Edison invented the light bulb because he learned from each and every one of his failures, not because he failed over and over again.
2. James Dyson
James Dyson is a more contemporary example of this same ‘lightbulb’ principle at work. An inventor as well as the founder of the Dyson Company – which has pioneered products such as the Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner and the Dyson Airblade hand dryer – Dyson’s net worth is estimated to be about £5 billion.
Dyson’s beginnings were modest, however, and motivated by an almost maniacal desire to learn and experiment. His Dual Cyclone vacuum, for example, went through 5,127 iterations before he developed a successful prototype. And of course, throughout this process, his friends and family thought he was crazy, and he couldn’t secure the funding he needed.
What’s significant about Dyson’s story is that he had a learning-driven attitude. In Dyson’s own words, “With every failure of the prototypes, I learned something fascinating. Each of these ‘failures’ brought me closer to my goal.”
Again, as with Edison’s light bulb, we see here that failure for these entrepreneurs who eventually reached such incredible success wasn’t really failure to them at all, but necessary steps on the journey to learning about something that fascinated them.
As Dyson once said in an interview: “I started out with a simple idea, and by the end, it got more audacious and interesting. I got to a place I could never have imagined because I learned what worked and what didn’t work.”
3. Steve Jobs
Perhaps the most recognizable and influential entrepreneur of our time, Steve Jobs barely needs an introduction. When he founded Apple in 1976 with Steve Wozniak, Jobs had already seen his share of failure as a college dropout. And yet, his company and its products, guided by his meticulous precision, have become some of the most iconic in business history.
Much has already been written and said about Jobs’ story: a rise, a fall, and a rise again, after a power struggle in the boardroom led to him being ousted from the very company he had started, only to return in 1997 to lead Apple to its greatest success yet. This was an amazing recovery from failure that still leaves all of us scratching our heads. Just how the hell did he do it?
As Jobs describes it in his biography (written by Walter Isaacson), the failure gave him the opportunity to learn a lesson that he had forgotten about after spending years in the managerial grind: that passion is the fundamental element of success, not profit.
The failure itself of being kicked out of Apple was in itself insignificant. Yet it allowed Jobs to reflect critically on himself and his experience, and consider what had gone wrong. In doing so, he recovered an essential truth about the entrepreneurial experience – that you have to love what you do.
Reinvigorated with his old passion, Jobs returned to Apple and created some of the most successful products of all time. Again, it wasn’t the failure itself that taught him how to make better products – it was his willingness to reflect and learn from it.
Though it might seem like an obvious truth to some, it’s often overlooked in the wider discussion of the relationship between business and failure. Many of these conversations center around failure and it often feels like failure is presented as though it is in itself a catalyst for success!
While this may be true for stimulating growth in something physical like weight training, it’s a mistake to extend this linear relationship to business. And this is a major problem for many serial entrepreneurs, who subsequently feel encouraged to keep jumping from one failing product to the next.
So sure, fail to your heart’s content. But these experiences will never be anything but failure unless they exist within a wider process of learning, experimentation, and reflection. These are the key factors that bring success. Not failure.
Guest Author: Kenny Kline is a serial entrepreneur. His ventures are primarily focused on media and digital marketing. When not in front of his computer, he can be found beekeeping, knitting, and being as Brooklyn as humanly possible.