In 1993, when the Dual cyclone vacuum cleaner arrived, people praised the genius of inventor James Dyson. The same James Dyson who had been less celebrated in the previous fifteen years when he had come up with 5,126 machines before the one that worked. ‘But I learned from each one, ‘ he said. ‘That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure.’ Dyson’s failures quietly made him.
Failure gets a bad press. Considering that it’s endured by anyone who is successful, that it’s the only route to success. Witness the business ideas that didn’t take off…before the one that did. The rejection letters to (later) famous authors. The fabled gigs with seven in the audience of (later) bestselling bands.
The path of failure can also lead to the success we weren’t seeking. I’m no gardener, but I know from what people tell me that their beautiful flowerbeds are the result of months and years of carefully, faithfully tending them: in the hope of, but often without any immediate sight of success. Gardening is a work of trial and error; the growing process an act of faith, hope and love.
Our mistakes may tell us more than our successes even though, at the time, defeat is hard to accept. Who wants to feel like a failure? But dashed hopes, thwarted plans or mistaken calculations can be paradoxically illuminating. A counter-intuitive thought in a note from the biblical letter-writer Paul puts it like this” Power is made perfect in weakness.’
The story of scientific understanding is one of blind alleys and failed experiments, of reversing up dead-end streets to think again. ‘The entire scientific method,’ says astrophysicist Mario Livi, ‘is based on the notion that discovering what does not work is vital to learning what does.’
Every day is trial and error, which is how, when we reflect, we come to understand ourselves and learn to relate to each other.
‘I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures that they’ve had,’ says James Dyson. ‘The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.’
‘Make interesting mistakes’, the writer Neil Gaiman told a class of graduating students. ‘Make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.’
Every hesitant folly or bold failure helps us refine the experiment we call our life. ‘Ever tried. Ever failed,’ asked Samuel Beckett. ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Revd John Davies, Priest in Charge. firstname.lastname@example.org 01524 805928. With thanks to Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe for this reflection. Read more from John at bit.ly/johndavies-talks