There are many stories about Thomas Edison’s achievements, but for me there’s one that stands out. I’ve heard several variations, but this version gets to the point quickly:
Working to create the first electric light bulb, Edison had carried out around 8000 experiments when he was interviewed by a reporter, who commented: “Mr. Edison, you have failed 8,000 times: surely it’s clear that you’ll never create electric light.”
Edison’s response? “I haven’t failed 8,000 times. I have successfully eliminated 8000 ways that won’t work, which means I’m 8,000 steps closer to achieving my objective.”
He went on to complete over 10,000 experiments before he succeeded.
It’s a story I share regularly because it’s a terrific demonstration of how differently you can view “failure”. There’s always something positive to look for – at the least, it shows us how to do it better next time. And that applies to all aspects of our lives.
I often tell the story because it’s a useful reminder to us all, but nowadays I like to add the following postscript.
When my children were younger, we’d go swimming regularly. On one occasion, we arrived to find a brightly coloured inflatable “something” in the water. It stretched about two-thirds of the length of the pool, starting from the deep end. Children were allowed to jump on one at a time and would then negotiate a series of obstacles until they reached a slide down into the water.
Excited, both kids were keen to play. Being only 6, Robert was turned away, which was disappointing for him, but I consoled him in the shallow end while Rachel joined the queue.
Because I was playing with Rob, I didn’t see Rachel fall. Apparently, she was working her way around an obstacle when she slipped sideways into the water. No physical harm was done but, as we all know, that wasn’t the point. She’d tried to do something and failed – and in front of other children. There probably weren’t many there but, to Rachel, it might as well have been a capacity crowd at Wembley.
I could see she was upset as she swam over and, as she explained what happened, I realised she wasn’t going to risk trying again. It was understandable: she was self-conscious and frightened of making a fool of herself. Even so, I knew how much fun she’d be missing out on. Frantically, I searched for words of encouragement.
Over the years, I’d enjoyed conversations with Rachel that covered a range of useful topics. Amongst these, I’d related the Thomas Edison story. So, without thinking, I asked her: “What would Thomas Edison do?”
She looked up at me, her beautiful eyes wide and surprised. Barely missing a beat, she responded: “I’m not doing it 10,000 times.”
It wasn’t what I’d expected so I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. When I saw a smile appear on Rachel’s face, I realised it wasn’t a bad outcome.
Before long, I had to give Robert some attention. I told her she could come with me into the shallow end if she wanted. Realistically, a grown-up 8 year old reducing herself to playing in the shallows with her little brother wasn’t an option. So we left her alone.
I kept looking over to see if she was okay but, within a couple of minutes, she pulled herself out of the pool and went back to join the queue. I felt an enormous pride swelling inside of me. Of course I did. I’m her dad.
This time, as she got on the inflatable, I watched every step she took. She pushed her way through inflated columns, climbed over a giant mushroom, worked her way around the legs of an octopus, and then she had only the climb up to the slide. As she appeared at the top, her face was filled with pride, excitement and achievement. She slid down it, disappearing under the water and, when she surfaced, simply turned and swam to the side so she could do it again.
For the rest of the afternoon, I didn’t see Rachel to speak to. Probably around the eighth time she went on the inflatable, she fell off again. For a moment, my heart sank, concerned this would be a setback for her. I needn’t have worried. She surfaced with a smile, swam to the side and went straight back to the queue and continued to have a whale of a time.
What a difference. Having already done it successfully, she didn’t have to worry that she couldn’t do it again.
Edison died years ago. He is still the most prolific inventor of all time. Yet, for me, his approach to failure is greater than all of those inventions put together. Too many people give up at the first hurdle, even more at the second. By taking a positive approach, and believing in ourselves, we can achieve far more – even if it’s just some fun we might otherwise have missed out on.