Success and Failure – All the Clichés in One Place

In my work I am more concerned with the principles of maximizing return on investment and the behavioural impediments to doing so than I am in more motivational ideas of success and failure. The bottom line, however, is that the reason most people don’t maximize their returns in all areas of their lives is good old loss aversion or what we generally call fear of failure.

So I end up talking about the need for short term failure in order to maximize long term returns – something that can often get bogged down in motivational speaker clichés. Here then are all the well-known stories in one place, enjoy:

Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance took four years to write, much of which while Pirsig was holding down another job. After such enormous investment it was rejected by 121 publishers – more than any other bestselling book according to the Guinness Book of Records – and went on to sell 4 million copies.

Vincent Van Gough did not sell a painting in his lifetime – a Long Run which sadly came too late for him to enjoy the benefits of having paintings such as Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, Irises and his Portrait of Doctor Gachet selling for as much as $82.5m and breaking world record auction values several times.

Michael Jordan – one of the few sportsmen who can genuinely lay a relatively undisputed claim to having been the greatest of all time – did not make his high school basketball team. When asked by a journalist how he went from not being the best of 300 to becoming the greatest of all time he replied: “I have missed 9000 baskets and lost 300 games of basketball. Critically, I have called for the ball in the dying seconds of a game and charged myself with scoring the winning basket… and I have failed. I fail and fail and fail and fail and THAT is why I succeed.” This pattern of Short Term failure Long Term success is evident throughout sport: at the point at which he held the record for the most number of home runs, Babe Ruth simultaneously held the record for the most number of strikeouts.

In science and creativity, failure is also critical with many of its major breakthroughs -  like X-Rays and Penicillin, being the by-products of essentially unsuccessful experiments, and almost every major innovation being the result of hundreds or thousands of failures. Greg Dyson’s “overnight” success story that ultimately made him a billionaire, the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, took five years and 5,127 prototypes. While part of the research and development team at Apple, David Levy was reprimanded by his boss for not making enough mistakes. He said he wanted to see at least 80% failure or he wasn’t exploring new ideas enough.

Coca Cola’s chief Roberto Goizuetta – himself no stranger to failure having been the person behind the most expensive product flop of all time (in New Coke) said he only trusted managers whom he had seen make a serious strategic error at some point. “The fastest way to succeed” said IBM head Thomas Watson Sr in his junior years “is to double your failure rate.” Perhaps the greatest CEO of modern times, Jack Welch, said that from time to time you had to reward failure or “nobody ever tried.”

Henry Ford called failure “the opportunity to begin again more intelligently” a reference, among other things, to the Ford motor company’s two previous incarnations before succeeding in the form that made history. Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda corporation, in the wake of personal bankruptcy said that “Many people dream of success but success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. Indeed success represents one percent of my work which results from the ninety nine percent that we call failure.” You can insert the words Short Term and Long Term into this sentence by now, I’m sure.

“A crank is a man with a new idea – until it catches on” said Mark Twain, referring to the way that many of the inventions that we now take for granted were usually rejected and ridiculed at the time of creation: “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction” so thought Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse in 1872. Lord Kelvin, President of The Royal Society in 1895, stated that “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible”.

“The device is inherently of no value to us” was Western Union’s opinion of Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone in 1876 while Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer of Britain’s General Post Office, said in the same year that “The Americans have need of a telephone but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Dyson himself was told that his idea for the Dual Cyclone was “dead from the neck up” by Hotpoint while Electrolux said he would “never sell a cleaner without a bag” and AEG claimed point blank that it didn’t work.

There are now 18 types of bagless cleaner on the market plus one attempt by Hoover, whom Dyson managed to sue for patent infringement. “If you see a bandwagon it’s too late” James Goldsmith.

The point is that the people who have shaped history, created the present and are busy designing the future are people who embrace Short Term failure everyday. “If you want to have a good idea” advised Linus Pauling – one of only two people to win Nobel Prizes in two completely different fields “Have a lot of them.” Statistically, if you only have a 0.1% chance of success at doing something but you do it 800 times, you have a 97% chance of Long Term success.

One man who embraced this philosophy more than any other is, not surprisingly, the man with 1,093 patents to his name, Thomas Edison – the most prolific inventor in history. Having invented the electric lightbulb and the phonograph not to mention various revolutions in telegraphy, Edison can lay claim to having been the man who created much of the twentieth century. And he did it by failing repeatedly.

One legend has him accounting for his repeated failures to perfect the electric lightbulb as being simply the discovery of hundreds of ways of not achieving the desired result as he pressed on (to Long Term success). “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realise how close they were to greatness when they gave up” he said giving an insight into his philosophy that you only needed to succeed the last time.

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of indulgence though as long as you remember why we’re thinking about these people: they maximized their returns be taking more risk than everyone else. They got the edge by being brave…

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