Jack Uldrich
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Unlock the Keys to Failure

Posted in Failure, Unlearn Strategy

Charles_Darwin_01To kill an error is as good a service, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.” – Charles Darwin

Question: Who coined the phrase, “The survival of the fittest”?

Did you say Charles Darwin? If so, you are mistaken. The honor belongs to Herbert Spencer who first used the phrase in his book, The Principles of Biology in 1864. To be fair, Spencer’s book was inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution and Darwin himself later acknowledged that the phrase might be both more convenient and accurate than his own term, natural selection. Nevertheless, Spencer and not Darwin deserves credit for coining the popular phrase.

It is worth noting at this juncture that Darwin’s paradigm-shattering book was only written because he had the temerity to ignore the advice of a well-intentioned but, ultimately, misguided editor who, after reading the first chapter of Darwin’s treatise, urged him to write a book on, of all things, pigeons.

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, of course, went on to become an immediate best-seller and, arguably, the most influential book of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is further worth reflecting on the courage Darwin displayed in publishing the book. As another British intellectual, John Maynard Keynes, once said, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” Darwin could have easily chosen to “fail conventionally” by writing a book on pigeons; and yet, in spite of the scorn and ridicule he knew would be reaped upon him, he chose to publish his intellectually challenging theory anyways.

A major reason was because Darwin was a scientist and he understood that scientific disciplines could only progress if ideas were put to the test of other scientists. In this sense, Darwin understood that risking failure was integral to long-term success. Outside the field of science, this important lesson is rarely taught or encouraged. This is unfortunate and the notion that failure only has negative attributes is a belief worth unlearning if people and organizations wish to achieve future success.

By embracing the positive attributes of failure, individuals can free themselves from the fear of failure. Once so relieved, individuals are more willing and able to confront and overcome the inhibitions of presenting society with unconventional ideas and products. Or, as one sage once said, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never end up with anything original.”

The benefit of this approach is that often in the marketplace of ideas and products, the market doesn’t even know what it wants until after someone has showed them something completely original—a sentiment neatly captured in Henry Ford’s famous quip, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Luckily, Ford, like Darwin and countless other iconoclasts and innovators, choose to succeed unconventionally, and so too can you but only if you first have the courage to unlock the keys to failure and venture forth with your bold, controversial or far-out idea.

Homework Assignment: Look up the definition of the word theory and see if the definition (as used in a scientific sense) corresponds with your understanding of the term. (Hint: A theory is distinct from a hypothesis and it doesn’t mean “an idea that isn’t certain.”) Next, explain how many of the best scientific theories are often the product of multiple failures.

P.S. For extra credit, try explaining how the concept of unlearning might be vital to your own evolution–and, thus, long-term success.


4 thoughts on “Unlock the Keys to Failure”

  1. Mark Jenkins says:

    In many areas of life your success is measured by your failure. Let me explain. A high jumper doesn’t claim their tallest jump until they have failed at a taller attempt. A salesperson’s closing rate is a measure of success vs. failure. A product’s market share is the same measure of success vs. failure. Only by risking failure and then failing can we measure our true level of success.
    “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.”
    “He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he had tried and failed.”
    William James

  2. Jack Uldrich says:

    Well said. I love the quote from William James … I’d never seen it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Lonny Eachus says:

    While at times the plot seemed to just endlessly trudge along I think “Creation”, the 2009 movie about Darwin, did a good job of portraying his courage in the face of uncertainty. He has been criticized for his hesitance; for delays of many years before publishing his work. I don’t see it that way.
    Not only was he justifiably concerned that his book could destroy his standing in the scientific community, he also felt it would alienate and perhaps even destroy the religion he had grown up with and to which his own wife was devoted.
    Ultimately, he felt he had to decide what was more important to humanity: the world he knew, his friends and respected colleagues, even his family… or the Truth he was convinced he had found.
    Hesitant or not, how many people would have chosen the way he did? Or even had the courage to look at it from that angle?

  4. Jack Uldrich says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think many people would display Darwin’s courage.
    P.S. I hadn’t heard of the movie, “Creation” … I’ll have to watch it.

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