If you tried to invent a super-strong glue, only to find out it wasn’t so great at adhering to anything for long, what would you do? What about working on building a medical recording device – what would you do if you accidentally inserted the wrong component, and didn’t realise its significance?
Chances are, many of us would throw out the useless glue and go back to the drawing board on our recording device. We would likely lament our failure, and try to avoid making the same mistakes in future.
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One’s trash, another’s treasure
Had Dr Spencer Silver – a senior chemist at 3M in the 1960s – not seen the potential of his results after failing to concoct a super-strong adhesive, we might never have heard of the humble Post-It note.
It was a colleague of Silver’s, Arthur Fry, who saw the now famous use for the glue. By pasting it onto his paper bookmark, his hymnbook page could be kept without the bookmark falling out. And so the Post-It was born, and continues today to pepper offices and boardrooms with valuable notes of ideas, quotes, and countless other useful scribbles.
As for the recording device, American engineer Wilson Greatbatch was working on a heart rhythm recording device when he plugged a resistor of the wrong size into the circuit. After installing the resistor, he recognised a sound resembling that of the human heartbeat.
According to his obituary in the New York Times in 2011, the sound reminded him of conversations he’d had about whether electrical stimulation could support the heart when its natural rhythm broke down. It was from this failure that the modern pacemaker was born. Prior to then, pacemakers were the size of televisions. Thanks to Greatbatch’s mistake, the much smaller version is installed in over 500,000 patients every year — and has saved millions of lives in the process.
Re-think what it means to fail
The above examples are just two of many “failures” or accidents that turned out to be real game-changers across industries, and they were brought about by people who encountered unexpected results and chose to create solutions from the problems that lay before them.
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When it comes to failure, there’s a cliché held by some that it’s somehow great to fail, that we should fail fast and fail often. This way of thinking misses the point.
It’s not great to fail – at whatever speed – but it is great to learn from failure whenever it arises, and to look for opportunities that can lead to previously unimaginable successes.
The key to creating success from failure is born from a small tweak in a common question we often ask ourselves and others. If most of us were asked, “What would you do if you tried to make a strong glue but ended up with a weak adhesive?” we would likely answer, “Probably throw it out and start again.”
But what if that same question was tweaked slightly at the start to begin, “What could you do if…”
Suddenly, we shift from a mindset of accepting a dead-end, to one that actively looks for possibilities and opportunities. That’s where innovations are made, and pioneering inventions created.
So the next time you make a mistake or find yourself with a “failure”, rather than chalking it up to experience and leaving it at that, ask yourself, “What can I do with this? What opportunities could I create? What’s the best way forward from this point?”
You might surprise yourself to find that, by shifting your mindset slightly, a number of solutions begin to pop up, and new avenues become open for exploration. And who knows what you could end up giving to the world with your new and unexpected turn of fortune?
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Article first published on LinkedIn.