1: The year was 1878. Thomas Edison was a man on a mission.
Day and night, he experimented with more than six thousand different filaments in his quest to discover the incandescent light bulb.
After spending a year in Thomas’ lab, Nikola Tesla commented: “If Edison needed to find a needle in a haystack, he would ‘proceed at once’ to simply ‘examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.”
“Well, sometimes that’s exactly the right method,” Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
Because with each failure, he inched closer to finding one that would finally work. “And, of course, he eventually found it—proving that genius often really is just persistence in disguise,” writes Ryan.
“In applying the entirety of his physical and mental energy—in never growing weary or giving up—Edison had outlasted impatient competitors, investors, and the press to discover, in a piece of bamboo, of all things, the power to illuminate the world.”
2: Simply put: if we want to improve any area of our life, failure is part of the process. “It’s the preceding feature of nearly all successes,” Ryan observes. “There’s nothing shameful about being wrong, about changing course. Each time it happens we have new options. Problems become opportunities.”
This insight is at the heart of The Lean Startup movement that many entrepreneurs have embraced. This model “embraces failure and feedback. It gets stronger by failure, dropping the features that don’t work, that customers don’t find interesting, and then focusing the developers’ limited resources on improving the features that do,” Ryan writes.
“Great entrepreneurs,” Ryan believes, “are never wedded to a position, never afraid to lose a little of their investment, never bitter or embarrassed, and never out of the game for long. They slip many times, but they don’t fall.”
These lessons from history and business apply in our own lives as well. Which means transforming our relationship with failure.
“It means iterating, failing, and improving. Our capacity to try, try, try is inextricably linked with our ability and tolerance to fail, fail, fail,” writes Ryan.
When we have a setback, we ask: “What went wrong here? What can be improved? What am I missing?”
Asking and answering these questions creates new paths forward that are superior to where we started. “Failure puts us in corners we have to think our way out of. It is a source of breakthroughs,” notes Ryan.
3: Still, we shrink from trying new things because we fear failure. “We do everything we can to avoid it, thinking it’s embarrassing or shameful,” Ryan notes. “We fail, kicking and screaming.”
Because failure hurts. Of course it does. “Like any good school, learning from failure isn’t free,” he writes. “The tuition is paid in discomfort or loss and having to start over.”
Yet, we are wise to pay the cost. Because “there will be no better teacher for our career, for our book, for our new venture,” Ryan writes. “It’s time we understand that the world is telling us something with each and every failure and action.”
That’s the definition of feedback. This setback is trying to teach us something, providing “precise instructions on how to improve,” he writes.
Listen, Ryan implores us. “Being able to see and understand the world this way is part and parcel of overturning obstacles. Here, a negative becomes a positive. We turn what would otherwise be a disappointment.
“Failure shows us the way—by showing us what isn’t the way.”
Thomas Edison once explained that in inventing, “the first step is an intuition—and comes with a burst—then difficulties arise.”
What made Thomas different from other inventors was his tolerance for these difficulties “and the steady dedication with which he applied himself toward solving them,” Ryan writes.
Reflection: Think back on a time when a failure or setback became the catalyst for future success. What did I learn from this experience?
Action: Discuss with a friend or colleague.