Ten Thousand Failures
By Michael Angier
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
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-actualised 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 is 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
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
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
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