Failure is inevitable, but is there a right way to go wrong? An open mind and a willingness to learn from mistakes can be all that stands between a glorious comeback and utter collapse.
On Oct. 11, 1868, a young and ambitious telegrapher from northern Ohio applied for a patent for an invention, a gadget he called an electrographic vote-recorder, which he hoped would be used to tally votes cast by members of the House of Representatives. Regrettably, the House declined to buy the recorder. But 21-year-old Thomas Alva Edison was unbowed by this failed business venture, and three months later he sold the rights to his next invention, a form of stock ticker known as a printing telegraph.
Edison was the quintessential American entrepreneur, committed not only to advancing technology–even inventing new industries–but also to securing ample profit for his labors. Yet for all his success, Edison embraced his role as a champion of failure. For the man who held 1,093 patents–who changed the way Americans lived every bit as much as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs would a century later–failure was elemental to the process of innovation. “Results!” Edison once exclaimed, as recounted in Edison, His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin. “Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
The intrinsic value of failure is a lesson that should not be lost on 21st-century entrepreneurs. Failure can teach not only what one is doing wrong, but also how to do it right the next time. It can be a useful, even transformational, force for better business practices. And it is best not to shove it under the rug, because it is, at some point, inevitable.
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