How Failing Can Help You Succeed

It may seem counterintuitive, but the more you fail, the more you’ll learn about what it takes to succeed.

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

Last summer, the Museum of Failure opened at Southcentre Mall. At this touring exhibit, visitors were invited to explore the biggest product flops from around the world. Relics of corporate mega-disappointment included Coca Cola’s coffee-flavoured Blāk soda; Colgate-brand frozen meals; Google Glass; and a Bic for Her ballpoint pen. The collection proved nobody wants beef lasagna from a toothpaste manufacturer and that failure is a positively instructive pit stop on the road to success.

Dr. Steven Bryant is a professor in the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary and is the school’s first Canada Excellence Research Chair in material engineering for unconventional oil reservoirs. In short, he’s world-famous in his field and, by all accounts, exceedingly excellent at what he does.

Still, Bryant had his share of epic fails, like a start-up he co-founded that went pear-shaped when members of the team came into heated disagreement about its direction. “The failure was that the conflict got in the way of deciding whether or not it was time to pivot,” he says. “If the approach on how to pitch this pivot had been more solid, we wouldn’t have come to a point where an argument arose about the best way to proceed. The solution we picked was to hand over the reins, give some advice and wish them luck.”

Unafraid to use the word “failure,” Bryant believes people should generally speak more freely about their mistakes. “We don’t talk about failure at award ceremonies or in school, but we should, because not everyone succeeds the first time out of the gate,” he says. “Your first idea may seem golden, but it might be terrible, and we have to be open to letting ideas go.”

In his role as chief scientist and mentor with Creative Destruction Lab-Rockies — a non-profit that provides objective-based programming for seed-stage science and tech companies — Bryant says: “We mentor folks to realize it’s okay to walk away. Failure is only a bad thing when you learn nothing from it.”

In the end, Bryant uses a sports metaphor as an example of how to recognize and learn from failure.

“Think of the Oakland A’s,” he says, referring to how the team’s 2002 “Moneyball” strategy changed the game of baseball by having the team loosen its grip on the home run in favour of playing a smarter game. “A home run is great. If you just get on base, you ‘failed’ to hit a homerun,” he says. “But, sometimes, a series of base-hit successes can get you to your goal just as well as the home run.”

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This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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