Ten Thousand Failures

Thomas Edison once mentioned to reporters that he had tried over 10,000 materials as filaments for his new invention, the electric light bulb. One reporter asked how the young inventor maintained his persistence in the face of so much failure. “Failure?” he responded. “I didn't fail. What I did was successfully eliminate 10,000 elements which were unacceptable for my needs.” What most people would call failure, Edison saw as the process of invention.

The ability to accept so-called failure simply as information and then make corrections without self-invalidation is rare. However, it is a critical key to success. Accepting defeat or criticism is never easy, but it is those people who take feedback and make corrections who create lasting success.

Everyone fails. Everyone makes mistakes and has painful experiences. Most people just complain about them, justify them or blame someone else. The self-actualized person learns from them, adjusts, and goes on. No self-condemnation. No pity parties. No blame. Just awareness and correction. It’s not what happens to us but rather what we do with what happens to us that makes the difference.

How do we make corrections without self-invalidation? Here’s an example: If we were to fly to a distant city, our flight would be off course more than 90 percent of the time. Constant feedback and correction would be required to reach our intended destination. As we drift off course, the guidance system reports to the autopilot, and the autopilot makes the necessary adjustments. As our altitude drops or increases slightly, the same thing occurs. This feedback and correction cycle continues over and over again hundreds of thousands of times throughout the course of our flight.

Can you imagine such an exchange of information between two people? After about the hundredth time, the pilot would probably lose it with the navigator. “Stop it! Just shut up and leave me alone. I’m doing my job!”

But the autopilot never gets angry at the guidance system for its constant correction and the guidance system never makes the autopilot wrong for being off course. It is the ultimate in correction without invalidation. We can all learn from this analogy. Being off course doesn’t mean we are wrong or bad. It’s just information that we can use to make a correction.
Many of us use computers. When we don’t get the results we want, we often blame the computer. But usually the problem is not in the hardware; it’s in the programs or in the instructions we give it. The computer can be flawless, but if the instructions are faulty, the intended outcome will be undesirable. Although we may get frustrated with computers, and with ourselves for errors, it’s counterproductive to blame the system or ourselves.

Like computers, we humans often run programs (belief systems and strategies) which result in failure. We frequently make ourselves wrong for being less than perfect. We berate ourselves for our mistakes or don’t admit our mistakes be­cause that would mean we're bad. We spend huge quantities of emotional energy in justifying or feeling guilty rather than looking for different approaches that will bring success. To overcome adversity, we must redirect this energy in better ways.

Self-invalidation is a debilitating disease. It keeps us from accomplishing much that we would attempt if we weren’t so afraid of failing—of being wrong. More is lost from not doing something than from trying and failing. The price of doing nothing is high. The money you don't make is more than the money you may lose.

As Robert Schuller asks, “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?” It’s worth serious contemplation because, in fact, there is no failure.

Like Edison, we need to view our errors as part of the process of success. If we learn to embrace them and use them, they can become our tools instead of our enemies.

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