Without fail

Lakshmi Palecanda, Feb 10 2018, 18:31 IST
Failure itself is not bad. Then why is it so feared, loathed and reviled? The reason is simple: it is not failure which is the problem, but the negative emotional impact it has on most of us.

Once upon a time, there was a boy who failed a primary school test twice. He followed it up by failing his middle school test thrice, and his college entrance exam twice. He scored 1 out of 120 points on the math portion of his college entrance exam. He was rejected by Harvard 10 times. After graduating with an English major from a local college, he applied for 30 different jobs, but was rejected for them all. The man is Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce conglomerate, and the richest man in China. He fondly calls Alibaba '1001 mistakes'. So, is Jack Ma a success... or a failure?

Failure is defined as lack of success, or lack of favourable or desired outcome. However, there is no person who has succeeded without failing at one point or the other. If you are going to try anything at all, you are bound to face some failures. As Denis Waitley observed, "Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing." No treasure was found with the first swing of a pick. No empire was established by a single slash of a sword. And no great success was won at first attempt. The roles of those who have failed, and failed in an epic way, read like the who's who of the top leaders and entrepreneurs of the world.

After the hit

Therefore, failure itself is not bad. Then why is it so feared, loathed and reviled?

The reason is simple: it is not failure which is the problem, but the negative emotional impact it has on most of us. You only have to look at the words associated with the word failure to understand the psychological impact of failure. Loser, inadequate, incompetent, insufficient, inept, inefficient, negligent, deficient, faulty, reject, guilt, remorse, regret - it is enough to cause a world of emotional pain, self-loathing, depression, apathy and hatred.

So how do great achievers view failure and make it work for them, instead of letting it swamp their lives?

Let's start off with the entrepreneur who gave the world a unique way with which to view setbacks. Thomas Alva Edison wanted to make electricity so cheap that the poor would be able to afford them, and 'only the rich will burn candles'. He was not the first to invent the light bulb; there were 23 others who had invented the light bulb. But Edison experimented with many metal filaments, including platinum. Finally, he successfully tested a carbon filament which burned for 13.5 hours. Hence, his famous quote: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

The lesson seems to be that it is good to be open-minded when venturing to do something. So what if Plan A doesn't work out? There are 25 other letters in the alphabet! Again, in the words of Edison, "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."

Trying more than once can yield results, but only when there is learning from failures. Somebody once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." However, learning from failure is easier said than done because analysing our own shortcomings is emotionally unpleasant and destructive to our self-esteem. Also, failure is always stigmatised with fault-finding and punishing. And probing a failure is tantamount to accepting the blame for it, in the eyes of society. Therefore, the general tendency is to acknowledge failure in an offhand manner and then ignore it.

Sometimes, problems go undetected due to the reluctance to probe a failure, as in the case of the horrific Columbia space shuttle disaster. NASA managers were aware that a piece of foam had broken off the left side of the shuttle at launch. However, they did not take the initiative to analyse the situation and see how they could rectify it. The result was the fatal explosion that killed seven astronauts, including our own Kalpana Chawla.

In contrast, the Andon cord policy started by Toyota, and copied throughout the auto industry, is an excellent way of dealing with problems. Andon cords are emergency cables strung above the assembly lines that can be pulled as soon as a Toyota worker detects a problem, or even a potential problem. Immediately the problem is analysed and solved, even if it means halting production and losing revenue. This way, the problem never ends up in the final product, the car itself.

In fact, many precious lessons can be learnt from goof-ups, making failure an essential part of innovation. Awareness of this phenomenon has led to Failure Fests, where aspiring entrepreneurs meet to discuss their experiences with failure and their takeaways from them. Did you know that the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is famous for its failure parties? Others, such as the Tata Group, even give prizes every year for the 'best failed idea'. There is also a unique consultancy called Fail Forward which helps businesses by showing them how to conduct 'blameless post-mortems' and host failure fairs. There is even a Failure Magazine that looks at 'humankind's boldest missteps'. Thus, failure is something to be embraced, not shunned.

Another important lesson that we should learn is not to sweep the results of failures under the rug, because they could lead to a Nobel Prize someday. Indeed, such is the story of a chance discovery by a young English chemist named William Henry Perkin. In 1858, Perkin, who was 18 years old at the time, was trying to synthesise the anti-malarial drug quinine. When he was experimenting with aniline, one of the simplest components of coal tar, he obtained a black precipitate. Trying to solubilise this, he discovered that in alcohol, aniline gave a purple colour which could dye silk. At first, he called the dye 'Aniline Purple', but when it became an overwhelming success, it was renamed 'Mauve', and became one of Queen Victoria's favourite colours.

To get back to our Nobel story, a German physician, Paul Ehrlich, used Perkin's synthetic aniline dyes to stain his microscopic slides, and discovered many aspects of the immune system of the body and chemotherapy. He became the Father of Immunology and co-won the Nobel Prize in 1908. All this because a young chemist didn't throw out one of his failures!

When you hit failure, you literally come up against a wall. It is the perfect time to stop, think and change strategies. If you decide you are not cut out for something, there is no shame in deciding that it is time to change tracks. If you find your resolve is still strong, then regroup and come back with a different strategy. There can be no better example of this than the story of Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motors. Soichiro was obsessed with motors from an early age. In 1938, while still in school, he developed the concept of the piston ring that he wanted to sell to Toyota. Later, to perfect the design, he even pawned his wife's jewellery for the working capital.

But when he showed it to Toyota, they told him that it didn't meet their standards. Though ridiculed for his design, he went back to redesigning his invention. The result was that he won a contract with Toyota, two years later. Now, he needed to build a factory to supply Toyota, but it was wartime, and construction materials were scarce. So he invented a new concrete-making process that helped him build the factory.

Then the factory was bombed twice, and steel became unavailable too. Soichiro began collecting surplus gasoline discarded by US fighters, calling them 'gifts from President Truman', and using them to rebuild his production. This time, an earthquake destroyed his factory.

After the war, gasoline was in very short supply, and people had to walk or use bicycles. Soichiro built a tiny engine and attached it to his bicycle. Looking at it, everybody wanted one. This time, he personally wrote letters to 18,000 bicycle shop owners for help. They then funded him and helped him make and market his small engine, 'the Super Cub'.

In the 1970s, when gas shortage hit America, small cars became the need of the hour. Being the experts in small engine design, Honda started making small cars and became a worldwide success. Thus, changing strategies at the face of every obstacle, Soichiro Honda proved to the world that success lies just beyond failure.

Another great thing about failure is that it teaches us humility. When we fail, we face nothingness, a sort of death. This loss of our goal, our opinion of ourselves, and our place in the universe, exposes us for what we are, resetting our perspectives. As Carl Sagan once said, "Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people." This brings us to the realisation that we are in no way as grand as we think we are.

Humble ears

One form of humility is listening to people who know. When a new piston built by Honda Motors failed, it was found that old mechanics who had less book learning and more experience had not been consulted. Once their input was taken, the problem got fixed speedily. Failure also builds courage and resilience. Bill Gates once said, "Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." US Astronaut Chris Hadfield echoes his statement: "Early success is a terrible teacher. You're essentially being rewarded for a lack of preparation, so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can't do it. You don't know how."

Instant success leaves us clueless about what we did right. Even worse, it makes us feel both overconfident and unsure and unworthy at the same time. While there is pride at having succeeded in the very first attempt, there is also a very understandable reluctance to try something new. What if we fail and lose our reputation as a success? Funnily enough, people who have failed a few times in life are far more confident. They have stared into the maws of failure and found that it is not the end of the world. This is a big reason why those who have played sports are more grounded and relaxed than those who only do academics. Losing in sport is commonplace, and though it is discouraging, it shows the value of sincere effort.

Best of all, failure brings about the most unexpected results. Let's face it: in Nature, nothing is really perfect, of course, with the exception of you and me. When they reproduce, organisms do not produce exact clones of themselves every time. Random genetic errors occur all the time, causing mutations that tend to accumulate. Sometimes, these mutations help organisms adapt to prevailing conditions, and they survive. Meanwhile, others that do not have these mutations are unable to adapt, and this leads to their extinction. This is natural selection. Thus, the combination of mutation and natural selection is what leads to evolution.

There is another extremely interesting story of failure leading to strange discoveries. In 1992, a shipping crate containing 28,000 plastic bath toys was on its way from Hong Kong to the United States when it fell overboard. Subsequently, the yellow rubber ducks began to wash up on beaches all over the world - Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Australia, the Pacific Northwest, Scotland, Newfoundland, and even frozen in the Arctic ice. What had happened was that the 'Friendly Floatees', as these rubber ducks became known, were borne by ocean currents that were unknown to oceanographers before this event. Now, thanks to them, scientists have learned a lot about our oceans, including how long it takes for a vortex of currents in the Northern Pacific Ocean, called the North Pacific Gyre, to complete a circuit. Here, an accident actually threw up a totally surprising result.

However, sometimes a failure is just what it is - a screw-up with no saving grace. Being human, we are all entitled to some of these in our lifetime. However, there are some massive screw-ups in history that can make us feel better about our own. In December 2005, a broker in Mizuho Securities in Japan was trying to sell one share for 610,000 yen ($5422 or 3.5 lakh rupees). In the mother of all fat-finger keyboard errors, he mistakenly sold 610,000 shares for one yen ($0.009 or 57 rupees). This mistake shut down the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and cost Mizuho Securities at least 27 billion yen ($282 million or 1546 crore rupees).

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that failure is imperative to success. In the words of Albert Einstein, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." And as Confucius said, "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail."

In all this, the important thing to do is never worry about the opinions of others. People, in general, hate to see someone succeed, because that highlights their own failed potential and mediocrity. Often, it is the ones closest to us who will be our harshest critics, and yes, they have to be ignored.

In short, if you want to live your life fully, if you dare to do something different, if you want to stand out in the crowd... go forth and FAIL!

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