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Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Most museums display and celebrate success: great artworks, pivotal moments in history, scientific discoveries. That's not the case with the new Museum of Failure, which opened in early June in Helsingborg, Sweden, and where every product or service on exhibit earned its inclusion by being a commercial flop. The whole endeavor might seem quixotic if it weren't squarely in the 2017 mainstream: In many areas of business and personal life, failure is being redefined as either a challenge that can be overcome with the right coaching or attitude – or, at the extreme, as a source of pride.

The Apple Newton personal digital assistant (1993–1998) is one of the exhibits at the Museum of Failure.

We're seeing this upbeat sense of failure in new idioms like failing up, failing forward, and failing fast. It's in the titles of recently published books (The Gift of Failure) and of TED talks ("Smart Failure for a Fast-Changing World"); in brand names (Fail Chips) and in a conference for entrepreneurs (FailCon, which began in 2009); and even in a new course for Smith College overachievers called "Failing Well." Here on the Visual Thesaurus, Daphne Gray-Grant recently wrote about "Why We Should Want to Fail as Writers" ("because mistakes show you're pushing yourself").

Fail Chips would be failures if they were sold by any brand other than MailChimp, an email-newsletter service whose name is frequently mis-heard. Or so they say.

The new sense of failure as something to flaunt and embrace comes at least in part from the world of software engineers and product developers, for whom "Fail early, fail fast, fail often" is a mantra. ("If you're not failing, you're not innovating" is another way it's often phrased.) The fail fast concept "encourages exploration by floating trial balloons quickly, then allowing ideas to fail if they don't help drive positive business outcomes," as a "Cloud Transformation Futurecast" puts it. "Programmers have to anticipate failure conditions in their programs. ... Engineers court failure as a way to test their systems,'" Mike Pope wrote in a 2013 Visual Thesaurus column, "When Failure Is an Option."

The concept has seeped into non-technical business philosophy. As early as 1992, Sim Sitkin, a management professor at Duke University, published a paper titled "Learning Through Failure: The Strategy of Small Losses," in which he argued that failure "is an essential prerequisite for effective organizational learning and adaptation." But the turning point may have come in 2000 with the publication of John C. Maxwell's best-selling Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success. Maxwell, an evangelical pastor turned leadership coach, called failure "the price you pay for progress" and urged readers to "make failure your best friend." "The difference between average people and achieving people," Maxwell wrote, "is their perception of and response to failure." For "average" people, failure is a dead end; for "achieving" people, it's merely a detour.

Maxwell's advice was quickly adapted by organizations as well as by striving individuals. Writing in 2011 for the Harvard Business Review, Rita McGrath contended that organizations "can't possibly undertake the risks necessary for innovation and growth if they're not comfortable with the idea of failing." At a 2014 conference, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos humblebragged that Amazon had "made billions of dollars of failures" and that "it would be like a root canal with no anesthesia" if he were to list them all.

Of course, Bezos is still very much a successful businessman, and Amazon remains a hugely successful business. And that's what differentiates the new sense of failure from the older one.

Certificate of Failure from Smith College’s “Failing Well” class.

The earliest meanings of fail, from the 13th and 14th centuries, were "to be insufficient," "to be lacking," or "to run short." An import from Old French, fail replaced Old English abreoðan, which meant "to perish"; or "to be destroyed." Crops and breeding animals might fail, but not until late in the 17th century did the language allow for a business or a businessperson to fail through insolvency. That was also when the noun failure first appeared: The earliest reference in the OED to failure as "the fact of failing in business" is from 1702, in the London Gazette: "Divers Failures have ... happened among the Traders in this City."

In colonial America, failure usually referred to a fall from spiritual grace, writes Scott A. Sandage in his 2005 book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. It was only in the 19th century – an era of frequent financial panics – that failure equated to "a breaking in business," or bankruptcy. In his 1828 and 1855 dictionaries, Noah Webster defined failure as "a breaking, or becoming insolvent" – clearly signaling a financial condition. The language used by 19th-century writers was telling: a man "made" a failure of business or farming. It "took a while," Sandage adds, "before failures made – or unmade – men"; it wasn't until the Civil War that Americans "commonly labeled an insolvent man 'a failure'."

Failure retained its stigma through much of the 20th century. Gradually, though, a few rebellious souls began elevating "losers" and "failures" to quasi-heroic roles. Most of those failure fans were writers and musicians, but Theodore Roosevelt was an early champion. In a 1910 speech delivered in Paris, he championed not "the critic" but "the man who is actually in the arena ... who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly." In 2015, Cadillac appropriated the whole passage for an ad campaign. (The company probably intended viewers to fix on the "daring greatly" part of the message, but some may have found any mention of failure a little disconcerting from a car company.)

Perhaps no failure advocate was more influential than the Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, who wrote on the first page of Worstword Ho (1983): "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Those six short sentences took on a strange afterlife as a "motivational meme," wrote critic Mark O'Donnell in Slate in 2014: "The entrepreneurial class has adopted the phrase with particular enthusiasm, as a battle cry for a startup culture in which failure has come to be fetishized, even valorized." There is a Fail Better literary magazine and a Fail Better game company; "Fail Better" is in the title of numerous motivational books and talks; the tennis player Stan Wawrinka had the entire 12-word quote tattooed on his forearm. It's John C. Maxwell and Failing Forward all over again: No failure is insurmountable, given enough gumption and appetite for risk; indeed, success isn't possible without failure.

This boosterish spirit reaches a sort of apotheosis in Failed It!, published in 2016 by Erik Kessels, the founder of a communications agency with offices in Amsterdam and Los Angeles. Intended as "an inspirational guide for creatives, students, and young professionals," Failed It! exhorts readers to "Seek out failure. Train yourself to recognize it all around you. Get to know it and take it away for a romantic weekend. Failure isn't fatal – quite the contrary. It's downright fabulous." To visually prove the point, the book is bound with a backward-facing cover.

Of course, not all failure is equally fabulous. Muscle failure, a term from exercise physiology, may help build strength, but heart failure is a medical emergency. Failing schools are threatened with cutbacks and closures (and attempts to save them may themselves fail). President Trump has frequently Twitter-taunted the "failing" New York Times (which in fact is doing very well, thank you).

In the business world, while failure is popular in certain quarters, it's not without its critics. In a 2016 New York Times op-ed, Kate Losse – a writer who was one of Facebook's first employees – pointed out that it's mostly "white men with connections to capital" who are "best equipped to fail successfully." A commenter on the site, "Genevieve," made an acerbic point: "I'm a structural engineer. No one would advise me to 'fail hard, fail often'."

Such skepticism aside, the future of failure may be rosier than ever. It only stands to reason: In life, our successes tend to be few and modest. Failure, on the other hand, is universal and ubiquitous. We may as well get comfortable with it.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 30th, 1:31 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
How fascinating!! \0/
Monday July 3rd, 7:34 AM
Comment by: Ewa W. (Palatine, IL)
When I read this article to my friends (both they are over 90 years old) they asked each other "How many times did we fail?". One lady answer "once again" the other asked her "because we did not know all of it?"
Thank you very much for fantastic "failure".
Thursday July 13th, 6:14 PM
Comment by: Ronald T.
"A commenter on the site, 'Genevieve,' made an acerbic point: 'I'm a structural engineer. No one would advise me to 'fail hard, fail often'.'"

Perhaps not in myopic vision. But I trust the commenter elsewhere exhibits the humility (not a trait for which engineers are well known) to acknowledge how he or she benefits from the colossal failures of other engineers: the Tower of Pisa and "Galloping Gertie," but two examples that fly immediately to mind. Numberless other engineering failures - which occur inarguably often - contribute to Engineering's glorious successes.

As much as engineers in particular hate to acknowledge it, much of their knowledge and product is built on failed experimentation. Failure is critical to all human endeavor; it provides the learning requisite for forward progress.

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