Why It’s Time to Show Failure Some Respect

An Irish exhibition titled “Fail Better” argues that flubs make success possible

Failure success
A new exhibition explores how failure relates to success. Flickr user StockMonkeys

It is no small irony that a quote from one of the grimmest writers of the 20th century has become an inspirational mantra for high achievers ranging from jaunty entrepreneur Richard Branson to rising Swiss tennis star Stanislas Wawrinka, who recently beat Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open.

The phrase has even been used in a commercial starring Liam Neeson to motivate the entire country of Ireland. 

Call it a hunch, but this is not likely what Samuel Beckett, the great purveyor of pessimism, had in mind when he wrote in his 1983 novella Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."  

That said, Beckett's alma mater, Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, is now providing a fresh take on the concept of failing better. Earlier this month, the Science Gallery there opened an exhibition which explores failing as part of the process of finding solutions.

Learning from failure

The show, however, offers a nuanced view of failure, not simply as a stumble on the way to victory. Sure, there's space in the "Fail Better" exhibit given to James Dyson's tale of how his company went through 2,000 prototypes to create its latest cutting-edge vacuum. But attention is also paid to inventions and ideas that merit a full-throated "What were they thinking?"—from lobotomies done with ice picks to a device upon which a pregnant woman would be strapped down and spun with the idea that centrifugal force would make it easier for her to have her baby.

More than anything, says curator Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, the show is about giving failure its due, asking questions about how it’s perceived and its role in innovation. Is failure the opposite of success? Or is it integral to it? Is failure grossly undervalued? Can it be a good thing?

That last question is addressed in “Fail Better” through displays celebrating the common fuse, a device whose failure protects a larger system, and the K1 syringe, designed to fail after one use so it can't be shared and spread disease.

Circuitous success

Still, failure is rarely acknowledged, notes Ni Dhulchaointigh, even in fields such as science where it serves such a critical purpose. “For example,” she says, “in scientific journals there is a bias towards publication of ‘successful’ experiments. Is this happening elsewhere? Will this dangerous trend mean that we will be increasingly unlikely to learn from each other’s mistakes?”

The Science Gallery's founding director, Michael John Gorman, had a desire to talk honestly about failure, particularly to young visitors to the museum. He approached Ni Dhulchaointigh last summer and gauged her interest in working with him to create an exhibition that takes a closer look at the yin-yang relationship of success and failure.

Gorman saw Ni Dhulchaointigh as particularly well suited for the role, given the circuitous route she took to her own invention, a multi-purpose type of silicon rubber that can be shaped like Play-Doh and sticks like superglue. She named it Sugru, from the Gaelic word for play.

Ni Dhulchaointigh produced her first batch of the malleable rubber back in 2003, then spent the next five years refining it, all the while thinking big as she looked for multinational partners. But no deal materialized and with money running low, she took to heart a friend’s advice to “Start small and make it good.”

She and her original partners decided to go it alone and, with a boost from a private investor, gave themselves six months to make Sugru happen. In late 2009, after a rave review in London's Daily Telegraph, their sticky, bendable rubber went viral. They sold 1,000 packages in six hours.

Since then it’s been pretty much one upward spiral for Sugru—selected one of Time's top 50 inventions of 2010 (ahead of the iPad no less). Ni Dhulchaointigh was named Design Entrepreneur of the Year at the London Design Festival in 2012. But she takes the most pleasure in the feedback she gets from the Sugru community, people from all over the world who send in pictures of how they’ve used it to fix things.

“In my experience, when things fail, a space opens up where imaginative solutions can be found,” says Ni Dhulchaointigh. “And the act of solving problems creatively has so much to offer—even on the smallest, humblest, everyday level, like fixing something that breaks.”

Failure stories

For Ni Dhulchaointigh, the appeal of a show like “Fail Better” goes beyond the stories of failure to the people who tell them. She reached out to leaders in different fields and landed the likes of famous explorer Ranulph Fiennes, who donated a pair of boots and the story of how they caused him to fail to summit Everest; innovation expert Ken Robinson, who shared the tale of how the accidental discovery of the color mauve led to the birth of the synthetic dye business; and reknowned astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who provided the sad case of the Mars Climate Orbiter, which broke apart in space because different teams of engineers had used different units of measure.

But the most poignant display in the exhibition is simply titled “Superman’s Wheelchair.” It's the first wheelchair used by actor Christopher Reeve after his horse riding accident made him a paraplegic. It was presented by Mark Pollock, a blind endurance racer and rower who himself was paralyzed when he fell from a second-floor window in 2010. 

Pollock says he was moved by Reeve’s commitment to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries, and while Reeve died before he succeeded, Pollock has taken on the challenge, engaging in aggressive physical therapy and learning to walk with the help of robotic legs. There’s clearly no guarantee of success, but it remains his objective. As Pollock puts it, “We know that in our pursuit of a wildly ambitious goal, the potential for failure travels with us. If there is no risk of failure, it probably is not worth pursuing.”

Video bonus:  Watch this video about the "Fail Better" exhibit, including gallery visitors sharing personal "fails."


FAIL BETTER at Science Gallery

"Fail Better" is on display at Trinity College Dublin's Science Gallery through April 27, 2014.

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