by Cathy Johnson
The very word puts a knot in the pit of one’s stomach. No one wants to be labeled a failure. And yet failure is critical to success; it’s one of the ways we learn to persist.
One of the biggest surprises of 2017 was the unexpected success of the Museum of Failure. Yes, you read that right, a museum dedicated to failure.
Why? Clinical psychologist Samuel West conceived the idea for the exhibit. His curated collection of 51 noteworthy innovation failures pointedly demonstrates that humans do learn from failures. In his words, “it takes many raw ideas to get something that works.” Seeing others’ failures helps us “connect the dots” between failure and innovation, making it clear that we need to tolerate failure in order to enjoy success. It’s not whether or not we fail, because all humans do, but how we respond to it.
The Museum of Failure recently closed its exhibit in Helsingborg, Sweden, but will reopen in April in a new location in that same city. The museum’s website notes that they were “happy and surprised that so many visitors from all over the globe have visited us during the short few months this summer. We did not anticipate the huge interest in our museum and the extraordinary number of ticket sales when we initially scheduled the duration of the exhibit in Helsingborg.” Originally scheduled from June through the middle of September, the museum exhibit now also goes on tour for “museum pop ups” in various cities around the world. It is scheduled to be in Miami December 7-10.
What is on exhibit at the Museum of Failure? The Apple Newton, Google Glass, Harley Davidson perfume, and Sony Betamax, to name a few. In addition to consumer technology, the museum houses poorly-received cars as well as edible products, like Heinz’s green ketchup. Displays are also dedicated to what the museum sees as poor examples of engineering (the Titanic) and planning (the Icelandic economic crisis).
The museum’s sheer variety of items, many of which were acquired on eBay, strengthens West’s belief that poorly-designed products have little in common with one another.
Taking inspiration from a Leo Tolstoy quote (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), West has created a slogan for his museum: “All successful innovations are alike; all failed innovations fail in their own interesting and spectacular way.”
Why focus on failure? West believes we underestimate it. “We are too obsessed with success.” In his opinion we need to embrace and learn from failure, rather than protect ourselves and our children from it. Learning to fail and then learning from it is a skill that, ironically, will help one to ultimately succeed in life. “The moment you realize that failure is not fatal is the moment you become liberated.”
Remember, we could all still be “in the dark” if Thomas Edison hadn’t persisted and learned from his failures and ultimately gave us the light bulb. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Nelson Mandela believed it, too, when he reminded us: “Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”