Quite some time ago, I started this draft with a simple premise: precluding success is failure of at least one effort in a given area. Put differently, those who have yet to fail in their chosen profession can never attain greatness in that field. Along with this supposition, I included one more stipulation as an addendum to the previous statement: one can, however, substitute knowledge, to a degree, for failure. Regardless of the knowledge amassed relating to a particular skill set or field of study though, the best one can hope for is mediocrity without the essential, formative impact even one failure invariably brings with it. Thus, from these somewhat humble beginnings, I began to craft this article.
Recently, Shawn Blanc has been on a bit of a creativity kick: with his article Fighting to Stay Creative, he explained some of the barriers and aids to this crucial element of any maker’s life, and has since recorded a number of podcasts on this topic. Before him, many others have spoken to this subject, and a host of others will undoubtedly continue this trend in the future. I bring this seemingly unrelated genre up now, though, despite appearing at best little more than tenuously related to the topic at hand, because I believe it an incredibly important element of success. Important, however, but not necessary: Apple exhibited remarkable creativity with the advent of the iPhone and iOS in a world dominated by flip phones and Windows Mobile, yet Samsung still managed to capitalize on that creativity and attain a pale imitation of the success Apple enjoys, but success nonetheless. Moreover, an abundance of creativity, just as an absence of the same does not deny it, does not guarantee success: Google Glass is inarguably creative, regardless of your own views on the technology, yet none would argue its success outside of a very small sect. There must be something else, then, something that can bridge this perplexing disparity between creativity and success. I believe that “something” is much less glamorous than creativity and all the artisanal niceties that go along with it; I believe that “something” rarely receives the credit it deserves, because no one likes to attribute their success to such an ugly and — in their eyes — unfortunate happenstance as this one. I believe that “something” is failure.
Quite famously, Thomas Edison built between 1,000 and 10,000 iterations of his light bulb before discovering a model that worked reliably. Although he hesitated to call these “failures” — the one aspect of this story the innumerable, conflicting sources recounting this tale manage to agree on — , by the term’s very definition they are just that: events lacking in success. By choosing to experiment in a field that, at the time, benefited from very little previous work, failure was a necessity regardless of whether you choose to agree with my fundamental supposition or not, for there was quite literally no way for him to determine the best combination of form factor and components to create the most effective light bulb without trying every single one he could get his hands on.
Today, although we in the creative professions do not go around reinventing the light bulb every day, we do, by the definition of the term used to describe this line of work, often venture into uncharted territories where few others — if any — have traveled before us. We do this in an effort at lending our creations value over that of our peers, and thus for this reason we may liken our work to that of Mr. Edison’s. Given this similarity, why would we not extend it to also value the failures, just as Thomas Edision did, we happen upon along the way?
Consider, also, investment strategies and the business of wealth accumulation. Throughout our lives, we spend the majority of our waking hours in pursuit of some semblance of wealth. For most, this takes the form of a traditional 9-5 job. Few, however, go through their lives with this their sole source of income: many also choose to invest a portion of their money in some way, and sometimes do so in risky endeavors at the promise of larger returns should the venture succeed. We do this all in pursuit of our own definition of financial success, and in service of that larger end goal financial advisors enter the picture to help mitigate the risk we take in wagering to maximize the value of our hard-earned funds. In this way, we offload a small portion of the failure necessary to truly attain impressive success and replace it with a professional’s knowledge. We cannot, however, feasibly hope to achieve our financial goals by hiring someone at an investment firm: at best, we may aim for mediocrity. How many, after all, would have advised investing in motorized carriages in a world built for horse-drawn models? Or Apple when its stock hit a low of $1.62 in the early 1980s? Or even Microsoft, for that matter, when its stock sold for $0.10 around the same time? In order to overcome that hump of normalcy, we must either take our fortunes into our own hands or at the very least authorize another to do it for us, and then take risks — in other words, open ourselves up for failure, and then fail, and then press on in the hopes that we may invest prudently enough to end the day with a windfall.
With two examples supporting my thesis, I feel compelled to offer up one seemingly in direct opposition to it, and explain why my theory holds true in the face of this example. Consider, then, skydiving, a profession where excellence is demanded from day one and failure is not an option. By the thesis I laid out at the beginning of this article, success is unattainable here; however, that’s not quite the case: in such a profession as this one, preparedness and daring replace the need for failure as a prerequisite to success. In fact, I might go so far as to argue that these two could replace failure in any space: failure is a necessity because it means we are pushing the bounds of our comfort zones to such an extent that we break free of them, and hopefully in doing so create something incredible or learn enough from the experience that the next time a similar opportunity presents itself, we may handle it in such a way to receive a respectable return. With a great deal of preparation though, and a willingness to go right up against the boundaries of safety, I believe we can achieve the same result that accepting the necessity of failure leaves us with in the end. Failure still precludes success in this space, then, but that does not mean one has to attain it by incorrectly packing a parachute.
In my own life, I have failed quite a few times over the years. Even limiting the scope to my off-again on-again career as a writer, I have still failed what feels like a remarkable number of times. None of these bother me though, because — to paraphrase something Mr. Edison likely once said — I have just found a few different ways not to write every day, and a few more ways not to run a site. Every time I discover one of these ways not to do something I so desperately want to, I get a little bit better though, and I take one step closer to attaining the success I strive to reach. Could this site finally be the place where, after more abandoned blogs than I care to remember, I finally rise above it all? I still can’t say for sure, but I hope I will look back on this day a few years from now and wish I had said “Yes”.
I have put off starting a podcast for a long time now, just as I have done with a simple recording to apply for a spot on Brett Terpstra’s Systematic. I do that, though, because I feel afraid that the end product will not only fall short of my expectations, but those of everyone who listens to it as well. But really, would that be so bad? Or, taken a step further, wouldn’t that be great? Because eventually it will have to be terrible, and eventually I will have to fail, otherwise how can I ever hope to become successful? So just as I leave myself with these questions to ponder, so, too, will I leave you with a similar question to consider: what will you fail at next?