Defining the Benefits of Failure

In a society that values success above anything else, it seems a bit odd to talk about one’s failures as being beneficial. Even so, failure is beneficial because it helps define what is possible and what is not. Failure helps shape the expectations of those who experience and use it in a positive way to produce a better result the next time. In fact, failure is the greatest teacher of all and something to be embraced rather than shunned. Of course, this sounds quite counterintuitive and perhaps even a bit bizarre, but it’s a fact. All true success comes through a path strewn with failure.

When you consider the role of a technical writer, part of that role is to fail. Readers pay me to play with various technologies—to try to perform various tasks using a variety of techniques. When I find something that works, it’s time to put it into words that the reader can understand and absorb quickly. Failures almost never appear in books except in the form of Notes, Tips, and Warnings (just in case you wondering about the sources of those bits of text). A technical writer fails until a success is achieved and then documents the success so the reader need not fail. So, when you think about it, at least part of the requirement for my occupation is the ability to fail gracefully and to keep trying until a success is achieved.

Failure has even shaped my writing and the techniques employed to produce useful books. Previous posts such as, Methods of Learning and Developing the Reader Profile, are based on failures to communicate in my earliest books. Discovering these techniques and how to apply them specifically to computer texts is an example of failure applied to produce a positive result. Of course, my technique continually evolves as I learn more through my failures.

There are many professions where failure is essential, even mandatory. For example, scientists fail constantly. In fact, Thomas Edison is reputed to have failed around 1,000 times when inventing the lightbulb. Of course, Edison turned the whole idea of failure around and simply stated that he had found 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. Even so, he failed. However, it’s important not to miss the significance of the failures. People actually paid Edison to fail when you think about it. They realized that he had the expertise required to eventually succeed and that the failures were simply the road to that success. The people who believed in Edison took his failures in stride, much as the man himself did.

It may surprise you to discover that many of the greatest people in history were equally robust in their failures. Abraham Lincoln is often viewed as our greatest president, and for good reason, his record speaks for itself. Yet, his record is replete with an astonishing number of failures. Viewing the record and then viewing the man makes you wonder whether Lincoln would have ultimately succeeded without that incredible list of failures.

Marie Curie also experienced more than a few failures, yet everyone knows about her because of the successes garnered after working incredibly hard to overcome obstacles that would send most people reeling. Without her work, we might not have many of the medical and other scientific advances we take for granted today. It was failure that shaped Curie, but we focus on the end of the path—the ultimate success of her experiments.

The list of famous failures goes on and I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of that list in this post. The point is that failure, not success, is the teacher of us all. Success is simply the conclusion to any particular course of education by failure. Because of my unique view of failure, it concerns me that our society has taken a course that values success over failure and uses every method possible to avoid it. Our children are taught that they’ll succeed no matter what, that failure is best avoided. The overemphasis on success to avoid the potential pain of failure is seriously hurting everyone and reduces the chance of success in the future. Failure, discover it—embrace it. What is your view of failure. Let me know at