In Los Angeles’ Arts District, the A+D Museum is hosting an exhibit called the Museum of Failure. As its name suggests, the exhibition showcases more than 100 of the worst failures in modern corporate history, ranging from Colgate’s beef lasagna to a hula chair to Donald Trump’s version of Monopoly.
Originally shown in Sweden, the Museum of Failure was curated by Samuel West, a clinical psychologist who studies innovation and failure and speaks around the world about why companies must fail, and how they can best learn and move forward after doing so.
This might not seem like breaking news — Silicon Valley’s adage “fail fast, fail often” is, after all, well known by now — but why, exactly, is it so important to fail? Or rather, to not be afraid of failure? What are you supposed to learn, other than that you hate yourself and everyone around you and never want to try to do anything with your life ever again? We did some research and came up with the four most compelling reasons to face-plant, metaphorically, when it comes to your work. Here they are.
You Have to Try Before You Succeed
Look, it’s tempting for all of us to sit around on our couch and dream about how we might one day write that book, or open that home-baked cookie shop, or start that consulting business. But here’s some breaking news for you: If you never actually take any action — i.e., if you never try — your goal, such as it is, will never happen.
Taking that inconvenient truth to its next logical step, if you try, you will almost definitely fail, at least once and probably more than once. You’ll write two chapters of your book, re-read them, and discover that they are mortifying at best, career-ending at worst. You’ll bid on a space for your cookie shop and get outbid immediately by a developer from Europe. Or you’ll spend two months pitching an idea for a consulting project only to lose the client to someone younger, less experienced, and with a more tasteful wardrobe. These are failures, yes, but they are also inevitable. They are not a horrible byproduct of trying; they are a part of trying, like shooting thousands of missed three-pointers or painting hundreds of terrible pictures before your percentage of success becomes something you can be proud of.
You Might Be Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Have you ever felt a surprising wave of relief when you don’t get something you thought you wanted? Say you find out your office crush has a long-distance girlfriend, or you don’t get into the culinary program at the college of your dreams, or you get turned down for a job in a city on the other side of the country. Oftentimes, that relief is a sign that deep down, you were going after something for the wrong reasons.
Failure can teach you the same thing. It can be hard to ignore a gut feeling telling you that a particular path isn’t right for you, but if that path ends in failure, it can be just the momentum you need to allow yourself to admit that perhaps you didn’t really ever want that thing you were after to begin with.
You Might Be Playing It Too Safe
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is quoted saying that his massively successfully streaming service has been winning just a bit too much:
“Our hit ratio is too high right now,” Hastings said. “We have to take more risk… to try more crazy things… we should have a higher cancel rate overall.”
The same article quotes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as noting, “If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments… and if they’re experiments, you don’t know ahead of time if they’re going to work.”
So, if Netflix and Amazon are pushing their employees to try crazier things, maybe you can take a lesson and do the same. Of course, you probably don’t have tens of millions of dollars to play around with, so maybe your crazier ideas don’t risk quite as much money as Hastings’s or Bezos’s crazier ideas. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something new, be it tweaking the way you approach new clients, changing up your pitching style, or adding a new product and service to your repertoire to see if it goes anywhere. If it doesn’t work out, lesson learned.
Failing Makes You Better at What You Do
Failing teaches us a lot of things: how to get up and dust ourselves off, what tweaks we might need to make to our work, or the ways in which we may be forcing ourselves to do things we don’t really want to be doing. But failure also plays an important role in actually helping you do your job better. The more you fail, the more resilient you become. The more resilient you become, the more likely you are to take risks and try something new. And the more you try something new, the more likely you are to — wait for it — succeed!
Because let’s not lose sight of the end goal. All of this failing is not so that you will one day have a long list of failures to tape up to your wall; it’s so that you will eventually succeed. It’s just that first, you just have to find a way to accrue what will eventually become your past failures.
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