If you want to increase your amount of success, triple your rate of failure. This is how I remember and use what I tell people is one of my favorite quotes. I believe it’s one of my favorites because its one I need to hear as it speaks to a persistence and an energy, not to mention perspective, that is hard for me to maintain. I credit the quote to Thomas Edison. While it may be paraphrased and punched up over time, I believe this was a quote of his.
I was wrong. It was Thomas J. Watson who said that. In any case I’ve always imagined Mr. Watson nee Edison, sitting in his labs creating filaments out of all conceivable items for years on end assured that this would get him to where he was going. In my telling it did. In reality it did. Of course it got there with Direct Current (DC) and would have gotten there much more efficiently, not to mention like a trillion times more safely, had he gone with Nicola Tesla’s suggestion of Alternating Current (AC), but that is not the genius’s wont. He did it his way. Failing ever forward to a destination that was wrongheaded. Turns out his quote on failure was essentially that he hadn’t yet experienced any. Each filament he’d tried that failed was not a failure, but rather a success in proving it was not worth pursuing. A brilliant spin and one I suspect he believed. How else would he go on.
There is something to be learned here from both men. In Watson’s case, a less romantic sort then the more famed fellow, he took the very straight down the middle approach. His quote, ‘If you want to increase your success rate, double your rate of failure.’ Like that. Not afraid or cowed at all at the idea of failing. He just says flat out, essentially, that failure is the road to success. To get closer to success fail more often. Being of the Midwest this type of unsentimental, practical advice resonates with me.
Edison was an inventor as it was a time that called for them and a field of endeavor that had yet to be corporatized. Essentially there was a need and he filled it. Some kid with a podcast is going to do that in some way in the future. I don’t know how yet, but when I do I’ll write about it. In any case I suspect that he’d have been an adman in the ’50’s and a pitchman in the nineties. His quote took a polar opposite approach to failure than Mr. Watson’s, rhetorically speaking, but it arrived at the same spot. Only difference? He denied failure. A thing failed, sure, but that’s not how he’s choosing to look at it. In both cases the advice is to keep trying. Each failed attempt is merely a piece of data, another step down the road to success.
I’ve been afraid of failure my whole life and have not so much avoided it as I’ve simply quit when it was an option to do so when I knew a failure would hurt too much. I salvaged some self respect by choosing failure in an attempt to control it and fail on my own terms. When I knew I wasn’t good enough at basketball, oddly enough when I made the Empire State Games team and played against guys my own age who were so superior to me that I knew, I kinda stopped caring. When math got hard in the 11th grade, I changed my goals of being a math teacher to having no goals. When I was afraid of computers (I’m old and it was a different time, don’t judge me) and was told I had to pass ‘intro to computers’, yep that was a thing for many of us matriculating in the early ’90’s, I failed it 7 times. In fact, college was too much for me so I stayed drunk and didn’t graduate until 9 years after entering when I FINALLY passed that computers course. I’ve dipped out of every relationship I could until years of therapy and the right person finally got me through that. I was so afraid of my writing ‘failing’ that I showed maybe 3 pieces of work to 3 different people over 15 years and never really spoke to them again.
How did I get past this stultifying fear you ask. I met my wife. Then I met my son Charlie and later my son Teddy. Now if you want to see a man overcome fear just take a look at how boldly I step into failure. I lean in. I have to. I have to get to the answers and there’s a clock.