Embracing Failure

Captain AmericaWe’re a nation of winners.  I get that.

If you’re not first, you’re last.  I get that too.

And failure is not an option.  Heck, I get that as well.

In fact, I get it all.  As a country, if not an economic power, we Americans have a deep-rooted, if not pathological aversion to anything remotely resembling failure.  As if failure is some form of creepy cultural, social and even moral disorder.

Failure stains us.  It brands us.  Failure determines that the world will forever see us as, somehow, whatever the opposite of a champion is.  (Oh yeah, a loser.)

Fear of Failure 1But what if I told you that some of the most breakthrough products of the 20th Century resulted from abject and unconditional failure?  That’s right.

For example, at one point 100 years ago or so, a health-conscious dietician who had spent months trying to come up a palatable breakfast gruel from a rather unappetizing blend of wheat and oats. And having failed miserably to develop any mixture with even trace amounts of commercial appeal, one morning in his kitchen he spilled some of his experimental breakfast glop onto the scalding hot stove in his test kitchen, at which point the drops immediately turned to flakes.  The funny thing was, that foul smelling batter he was working on tasted far better in flake form than it ever did in liquid form.  And with that, an American breakfast institution called Wheaties was born.

Fear of Failure 3And that’s just one example.  Such iconic and (at times historic) inventions as bubble wrap, post-it notes, penicillin and even the Slinky all share similar backstories, as some blend of failure and good fortune seemed to smile on the developers and decree that marketplace magic — poof — would happen.

Heck, why do you think they call it WD-40?  Not for any scientific reason, I can assure you.  But because before stumbling on the formula for what would prove to be a miracle in a blue and yellow can, the scientists who developed that lubricant tried and failed 39 other times.

WD-40Look, I’m two things, and for as long as I can remember have always been those two things.  I’m an independent manufacturer.   And I’m a small businessman.

And inasmuch, I have lived my life in constant fear of failure.  If (either as a small shop owner or a small businessman) I had ever bet precious capital on a product that tanked or ever completely retooled due to a miscalculation, my shop might have closed its doors forever.

But these days everything’s changed.  And I mean everything.

Fear of Failure 4Technology has given us manufacturers a line of credit we’ve never had at our disposal before, freeing us once and for all from what had always been an almost crippling fear of failure.  Such technological game-changers as cloud computing, 3D design, and, above all, additive manufacturing have reduced our risk to a fraction of what it had been; which has allowed us to experiment as never before and take chances we never dreamed possible.

Fear of Failure 2Sure, the marketplace is more voracious than ever, not to mention exponentially larger, vastly more complex, and infinitely more fickle.  And sure, technology is changing the rules almost as quickly as we can learn them.

But the one thing that has always limited manufacturing as a sector, namely our unifying fear of failure, has been tempered, if not tamed altogether.

risk taking 1Now, the challenge for us is to do something with all our newfound testicle fortitude. Without drilling too deeply here, let me just say we must really try to do three things.

We must learn to innovate and take chances as never before.

We must emotionally get past our sector’s maddening fear of failure and its often archaic preconceptions of the marketplace, while resolving in the future to innovate incessantly and constantly seek better ways to produce better products.

risk taking 2But, above all, we must embrace the notion that, while we may now have a safety net beneath us, we also – for the first time ever – have no ceiling above us. And, inasmuch, if there was ever a time for shop owners, entrepreneurs, industrial visionaries and hands-on risk-takers from coast to coast to truly reach for the stars, it is now.

Because, for the first time in my life, my fellow manufacturers, I’m delighted to say failure is at long last an option.

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