Advice to Innovators: You Really Fail Only When You Quit

By Evans, Harold | The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

Advice to Innovators: You Really Fail Only When You Quit


Evans, Harold, The Christian Science Monitor


The striking thing about the innovators who succeeded in making our modern world is how often they failed. Turn on a light, take a photograph, watch television, search the Web, jet across the Pacific, talk on a cellphone. The innovators who left us such legacies had to find the way to El Dorado through a maze of wrong turns.

We have just celebrated the 125th anniversary of Thomas Edison's success in heating a spiral of carbonized cotton thread to incandescence for 14 hours in his lab in New Jersey. He did that on Oct. 22, 1879, and followed up a month later by keeping a filament of common cardboard alight in a vacuum for 45 hours. Three years later, he went on to light up half a square mile of downtown Manhattan, though only one of the six dynamos in his central power station worked when he pulled the switch on Sept. 4, 1882.

"Many of life's failures," the supreme innovator said, "are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." Before that magical moment in 1879, Edison had worked out no fewer than 3,000 theories about electric light - but in only two cases did his experiments work.

No one likes failure, but the smart innovators learn from it. Mark Gumz, the head of Olympus America, attributes some of the company's successes in diagnostic technology to understanding failure and acting on the knowledge. His mantra: "You only fail when you quit."

Over two centuries, the most common quality of innovators has been persistence, which is another way of saying they had the emotional resilience of character to cope. Walt Disney was so broke after a succession of financial flops that he was stranded shoeless in his office because he could not afford the $1.50 to reclaim his shoes at the repair shop. Henry Ford failed with one company and was forced out of another before he got on the road to the Model T.

Folklore, unfortunately, has a way of telescoping the process of trial and error so that only the peaks are mapped, not the valleys. The Wright brothers are customarily presented as if Orville's 12- second powered hop at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903, was the climactic end of their ordeals. …

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Advice to Innovators: You Really Fail Only When You Quit
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