Failure as prototype

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Business Week asked James Dyson how he deals with failure.  I loved his answer.

“I mean, 99 percent of my life is failure, because we’re building prototypes all the time. We’re trying out ideas, and they all fail. You then have to try and make it work, and that requires hundreds or thousands of prototypes—all of which are failures—until you get the one success. So we’re totally used to failure. Failure’s fascinating. It’s much more interesting than success. And it’s what, you know, we build our lives on.”

That’s life for most of us: a long series of “prototypes” until we get something right. Most of the new stuff we try doesn’t work the first time. Then what?

Learn from it.

Apply what you’ve learned.

Keep moving.

There’s a real life example in my Aunt Dot. When her father’s business failed during the Depression, she had to go to work. She figured a short order cook would always have work. They worked at the places where people went to eat, even during hard times.

So she got a job as a short order cook. There was only one problem. She didn’t know how to cook. She got fired.

She went right out and got another job. She was there a little longer before she got fired. She got another job and stayed a little longer. Then she got another job and then another until she finally stuck.

By the time I was ten she’d mastered the work. When we went to visit, I’d go watch her during the lunch rush. It was work as poetry.

Her workplace around the grill was organized precisely and she could grab a tool or ingredient without looking. While she cooked, she joked with everyone, calling them “hon” and laughing her big laugh.

I was most amazed by her ability to tell when something on the grill was ready just from the sound. She’d be talking to someone at the counter and stop in mid-sentence with her ear cocked toward the grill.

“Hang on, hon,” she’d say, “I think your burger’s ready.”

Then she’d turn to the grill, get the burger, put it on a bun, dress it, and turn back around.

“Here ya go, hon.”

Years later I visited her during leave from the Marines and we got to talking about her adventure. I asked her about getting fired and learning and getting good.

She said it took awhile. She thought World War II was a big break because the Army and Navy snapped up all the men cooks. By the time they came back from the war, she was good. By the time I was aware of what she did she was a master.

She kept getting better. She was always trying new things, especially new dishes.

I said I thought she was so good that she started getting things right the first time. She laughed that big laugh and leaned toward me.

“Listen, hon, you never get it right the first time.”

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