The value of failure and resilience

21 June 2015

After numerous discussions with the educators and entrepreneurs we have met so far, a common theme has emerged. The conversation with Pablos Holman in particular contrasted his experience of failure in hacking and in invention (in which it is a critical component) with the role of failure in schools (where it is generally something negative and to be avoided).

Possibly we need to rethink this. Our most “successful” school students are often those who rarely experience failure, yet dealing with failure and using it productively is critical in innovation. Maybe failure needs to be part of their educational experience?

The anecdote was told by a long-time associate of Edison’s named Walter S. Mallory. Edison and his researchers had been working on the development of a nickel-iron battery for more than five months when Mallory visited Edison in his laboratory. 


I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’

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