October 7th, 2014:

The majority of people try very hard to avoid failure in their everyday lives. From children in school terrified of that spelling test every Thursday, to corporate executives pushed up against a looming deadline, they push themselves to avoid that big red F.

With the recent push in the industry to stress the importance of innovation, entrepreneurship, and creative thinking, I have seen many articles and opinions encouraging individuals to go out, try something new, and fail! While this sounds so liberating, I think this advice needs to come with contingencies. Rampant and senseless failures will do nothing to shed the stigma and bad connotation of failure. 

1. Know when it is appropriate to fail - Just because people are more comfortable with failure, does not mean that it should be a habit. No matter what position or industry you are in, if failure is a habit, you won’t be failing at that place very long! You have to make good decisions as to when it is okay for you to take a risk that has a significant chance of failure. The day before a project is wrapping up is not the time to take a huge risk that could result in failure and a disappointed client. Know your limits and have a game plan for when your risk doesn’t pan out the way you were hoping.

2. Avoid failure when possible - That grade-school F on a spelling test can be avoided by putting in the effort to study, and that corporate F can likely be avoided with careful planning. The increasing acceptance of failure should not be an excuse to avoid educating yourself with the work that others have done. For any one situation, failure is only valuable once. Beyond that first failure, subsequent failures are simply wasteful. While failure and experimentation may be more attractive, you have to acknowledge that if the work has been done already, it does not make sense for you to repeat those previous failures in an effort to get the same result.

3. Learn - All failures should be educated and controlled. If you fail, make sure you know why. Reflect on how your failure can lead to success in the future. What did you take away from the experience?

4. Share - This refers back to Number 2 a bit, but it’s worth reiterating. Knowing that failure is only valuable once, make sure to share your experience with others. Even if it is within your company and not a published work, let others know what you tried, what happened, why it happened, and what can be done next time that may be successful. Research publications often suffer from a phenomenon known as “Publication Bias” where researchers are far more likely to publish positive or significant data and not report inconclusive or negative data. This results in failures being repeated by those who don’t know how others have failed before them. How many times have researchers found the same way NOT to cure cancer? The availability and ease of sharing is at an all-time high in today’s increasingly connected world. Let’s take full advantage of it to push our world forward. By sharing our failures with others, we will continue to chip away at the stigma of failure and educate others so they can build on our failures instead of repeating them.

These are the contingencies that I believe need to come with the acceptance of failure. Keep these in mind next time you are faced with a challenge or are encouraged to think outside of the box. Now go and fail wisely!

- David Tortoriello, Junior Mechanical Design Engineer Goddard Technologies