In a small pub in the highlands of Scotland, a group of fishermen gathered one afternoon to swap tales over a round of ale. One of them stretched his arms apart to show the big one that got away. At that very point, a server walked past carrying a tray of full ale glasses. The fisherman’s wild gestures sent the tray smashing against the wall. The dark brew splashed on the white wall of the pub and began running down.
The server and fisherman tried to wipe the mess off the wall, but it had left an ugly dark stain. A man who had watched the whole scene from another table, walked quietly over to the wall. He took a brown pastel crayon from his pocket and began to sketch.
The entire pub watched in silent awe as a majestic stag with great spreading antlers magically took shape around the stain. The artist was Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, the top 19th century British painter of animals.
Happy Accidents: Capitalizing on Mistakes
In Self Help, Samuel Smiles writes, “…he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
Many discoveries and breakthroughs are made by accident. The history of innovation is a long list of failures that eventually led to bigger successes. The list includes products like Post-It-Notes, penicillin, Pyrex cookware, Jello, dynamite, Velcro, Coca-Cola, matches, the microwave oven, x-ray machines, bubble wrap, chewing gum, Silly Putty, Kleenex, Levi jeans, Band-Aids, Corn Flakes, and runs on into the thousands.
Accidental innovations and unplanned applications happen every day. Few of them ever amount to anything productive and useful. The inventors and companies that can capitalize on their “happy accidents” are those that are the most flexible and responsive to the unexpected opportunities before them.
In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar writes, “We can only learn to deal with failure by actually experiencing failure, by living through it. The earlier we face difficulties and drawbacks, the better prepared we are to deal with the inevitable obstacles along our path.”
Are You Using or Abusing the F-Word?
Failures are so critical to our leadership and learning — as well as health and wellbeing — that Harvard Business Review once devoted an entire issue to it; “The Failure Issue: How to Understand It, Learn From It, and Recover From It.”
Here are the opening lines introducing the issue, “Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. Go online, and you’ll find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure and the importance of learning from it. But in real life — and in real companies — failure is anathema. We’re afraid of it. We avoid it. We penalize it… failure is inevitable and often out of our control. But we can choose to understand it, to learn from it, and to recover from it.”
As German Playwright, Poet, Novelist, and Dramatist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, put, “By seeking and blundering we learn.”
How Do You Frame Failure?
Failure. Is it temporary or permanent? Is it an experience or who you are? Do you learn from it or get crushed by it? Do you get traumatized, bounce back, or grow and become better off?
We decide which glasses we’ll put on to view our situation. When difficult challenges hit us — often unexpectedly — we choose the frame to put around it. That frame makes our situation appear larger or smaller or brighter or darker.
NHL Hall of Fame goalie, Jacque Plante once said, “How would you like a job where, if you made a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?” Fortunately, few of our mistakes are that public with such overwhelming negative feedback.
Or imagine this classified ad: “Parachute for sale. Only used once, never opened, small stain.” When it comes to sky diving, if at first we don’t succeed — our fears are over. Few learning experiences are that deadly. However, learning-impaired people treat many mistakes as if they were. Fear of failure is a huge killer of innovation and learning.
Thomas Edison is famous for reframing failure as the pathway to success, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Daring to Attempt — and Learning Our Way
In Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare penned, “Our doubts are traitors; And make us lose the good we oft might win; By fearing to attempt.”
Part of our growth and development is embracing the idea of trying something and failing. That takes us much further than doing nothing and succeeding. By taking few chances and not stretching outside our comfort zone, we’ll reduce our risk of failure — and chances of success.
Highly effective leaders go against the odds — or just ignore them. It’s a characteristic that the legendary inventor, Charles Kettering, called “intelligent ignorance.” As founder of Delco and head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947, Kettering held 186 patents. Among his many teachings about innovation, he provides this useful perspective on growing and developing, “Research…is nothing but a state of mind — a friendly, welcoming attitude toward change; going out to look for change instead of waiting for it to come. Research, for practical people, is an effort to do things better …the research state of mind can apply to anything — personal affairs or any kind of business, big or little.”
When we fail or experience significant setbacks, it’s tough figuring out how to turn the pain into a painting. But that’s often the pathway to deep learning, growth, and innovation.