Henry Ford’s first two automobile companies sank, but his missteps enabled him to launch the Ford Motor Company and revolutionize industrial production. Ray Kroc faltered as a milkshake-machine salesman, but his experience led him to expand McDonald’s and spark the fast food industry. Walt Disney’s first cartoon business went bankrupt and he was ridiculed for having lousy ideas (who wanted to see cartoons about a mouse?), but his innovations significantly impacted movies and culture.
The trajectory from failure to success differs from person to project, but there is a common thread, say psychologists — a willingness to learn and even embrace mistakes, using them to pivot toward fresh perspectives. It’s a timely notion.
As the economy stalls, the pressure to get things right the first time is heightened. Tolerance for mistakes that could lead to a breakthrough, therefore, drops. For students on university campuses, it can sharpen the focus on getting the best grade, rather than seeking learning with lifelong payoffs. In the end, aversion to risk and worrying about failure stifles performance, rather than enhancing it.
“In this day and age, the requirements for education are generally higher,” says Joshua Bourdage, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. “Students today don’t want to screw up. Rather than thinking what competency or skill set they can acquire, they’re worried about the grade. It leads to taking an easy course, rather than wanting to learn.
“The result is they end up with fewer skills. It’s a performance-avoiding failure. The goal affects how they approach tasks. If we can foster the goal of learning, it actually tends to lead to much better performance.”
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck suggests “learning goals” inspire different behaviours than “performance goals.” For students with learning goals, mistakes become learning opportunities. Personal and intellectual growth arises from taking risks and allowing repeated failures.
The best creative work collaborates with risk and failure, says Aritha van Herk, Professor, Department of English.
“When I begin a project that I care deeply about, I pay obeisance to perversity and hope that some element of fact or trajectory or logic will go awry, will refuse the tempered smoothness of practice, and turn on me. The surprise of losing my footing, the shock of unbalance, will thwart tedium. Failure enables us to forsake the planning and the plodding and to risk the unpredictable.”
Finding Hidden Opportunities
When now-Hotchkiss Brain Institute Director Sam Weiss, PhD’83, and his graduate student, Brent Reynolds, MSc’90, PhD’94, were looking for natural proteins to keep brain cells alive in 1989, they were testing a particular protein — epidermal growth factor (EGF) — to grow brain cells from adult mice.
Years later, Weiss describes that part of the experiment as a “woeful failure.” Yet, it became an accidental stepping-stone that led to one of the university’s most profound research discoveries.
The culture dishes they had been using to test their theory started to produce something unusual and unexpected — which, in the end, turned out to be neural stem cells.
Repeating the accidental experiment again and again showed that the adult brain does not lose the power to make new cells. It was a groundbreaking discovery, refuting dogma at the time that the brain cannot regenerate.
Weiss’ explorations into the brain have changed the fields of developmental neurobiology and neural regeneration.
“We don’t want research to just try and answer one question — we have to leave room for serendipity in science and for accidents that could yield impactful findings down the road,” says Weiss. “The most important observations can be the ones that you weren’t initially seeking.”
Do we now live in a business climate that discourages taking risks and, if so, what’s the cost?
“It’s tougher these days, having risky, out-of-the-box thinking with the requirements of funding agencies,” says Weiss.
“Canada talks about diversifying the economy and becoming more innovative, but wants researchers to only ask for grants that will support predictable and applied outcomes. It’s important to do what is relevant and applicable for today, but we also need to explore what may be, even if we don’t recognize it yet.”
Turning Failure into Triumph
Can you excel in a fast-paced idea incubator like Silicon Valley, let alone a research facility, if you fear failure and are averse to risk-taking?
“I spent a lot of my time in research labs and there’s a general principle in that universe — if you’re not failing often enough, you’re not doing anything interesting,” says alumnus James Gosling, BSc’77, LLD’99, a software developer known as the father of the Java programming language. “If I’m learning, I don’t count it as a failure.”
In fact, Gosling, now Chief Software Architect with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Liquid Robotics, a maker of robot vehicles that explores the ocean, says one of his criteria for evaluating people is: Are you failing enough?
When he was working on his computer science PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, he was asked to figure out how to run software on a different computer.
“I came up with an interesting trick, but failed to get anyone to approve it, so I kind of forgot about it,” Gosling says.
“Years later, I was working on a problem at Sun Microsystems [Gosling was there from 1984 to 2010], and the failed project popped into my head. It became the cornerstone of Java and went on to be wildly successful.”
If we can turn flops into triumphs in research labs, how can we use failure as a means of discovery in the workaday world?
While Gosling uses software to help scientists probe the ocean, alumna and aerospace engineer Natalie Panek, BSc’07, is working on hardware that will enable exploration of a different frontier — Mars.
During her first internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, she examined how solder joints for wires can fail on spaceflight hardware.
She broke paper clips, again and again, to get the most basic understanding of how wires broke. It didn’t work for her, until it did. Panek eventually found a better technique to solder the wires so they can withstand the extreme vibrations that launch vehicles undergo.
“You need to take time, be curious, think about the world in simple ways,” says Panek. “That’s how you can make discoveries, whether it’s at your home or in a start-up culture.
“I’ve had failures and rejection, but drive, passion, resilience and perseverance have helped get me to where I am today.”
If dance requires practice and repetition with some inevitable missteps, Vicki Adams Willis, BFA’72, co-founder of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, is proof that the outcome can be glorious.
“You have to trust the path will reveal itself, even as it remains hidden. You start with a jumping-off point and have to go with the flow. Quite a few years ago, I started to do a piece about the relationship between the jazz dancer and the musician. Then I went to Costa Rica and became overwhelmed by the elements. Inspired by the trip, I took a complete left turn and the piece turned it into something entirely new named Evanescence.”
The Secret Sauce for Success
People aren’t robots and traits can’t be slapped together as if they are parts, but what characterizes a person who can capitalize on mistakes or failures?
The best entrepreneurs thrive on competing, says Houston Peschl, an entrepreneurship and innovation instructor at Haskayne School of Business.
“People who are good at self-reflection are often successful,” says Peschl. “They unpack what’s occurred and identify how to change or redo. Entrepreneurs are business-experimenters; they learn from their failures. They time-manage, prioritize and see opportunities.”
While entrepreneurs are competitors most likely to shine when outside the box of a rigid organization, does the same hold true in the classroom?
“Basically, hierarchy has been one of the great mistakes in history, leading to civilizations and cultures where people oppress each other and create dysfunction,” says Ron Glasberg, associate professor in the Faculty of Communications and Culture. “I try and create tribal classrooms, where students work together in a non-competitive manner. Success is learning that transforms the individual.”
In most fields of endeavour, success is married to failure, a necessary alliance with inevitable ups and downs. Just like climbing a mountain, your approach is key. You may make mistakes, but the power is in the doing.
Stephen Colbert, one of our keenest social observers and now host of Late Show, told GQ as he took the show’s reins earlier this year: “You gotta learn to love when you’re failing. The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you.
“Fear is the mind-killer.” U