Thomas Edison did not sit down and, in a day, make a light bulb. He attempted to create a light bulb over 10,000 times. James Dyson attempted to create a bagless vacuum cleaner 5,126 times. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected by 27 publishers before being accepted. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his life, Fred Astaire and Harrison Ford were told by film executives that they could not act, Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he “lacked imagination,” and Stephen Spielberg’s applications to film school were rejected. What would our world be like today if these talented individuals had given up on the first rejection—or the 100th—or, in the case of Edison, the 10,000th?
“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have succeeded in proving
that those 10,000 ways will not work.” –Thomas Edison
How do we succeed? How do we prepare students for success? To succeed, we need to learn—and teach—how to fail. And fail often. We need to accept failure as an advantage, where we learn what does not work and, by doing that, move closer to what does work. And as the list of “what does not work” grows, so does the opportunity for innovation, for a breakthrough.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” –Robert F. Kennedy
But failure can be uncomfortable, and we go to great lengths to avoid it. We may remain quiet for fear of asking “the wrong question.” If we fail an assignment, or if a project is much harder than expected, we may doubt our abilities and our potential. And, instead of bouncing back, we may leave the field, switch majors/careers, pursue a safer path.
This lack of, and need for, resilience is especially seen in STEM fields. In 2011, IEA researchers studied students across 28 countries. Students in America were less resilient than students in 25% of the countries studied, including Japan, Singapore, and Kazakhstan. Our students are less able to recover from failures, less able to bounce back and bounce higher. What does this mean for the future of American scientists and students?
“Failure is another word for experience.” –George Lucas
Here at Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, we embrace failures as essential to innovation. We encourage visitors—in our galleries, our programs, and our Innovation Lab—to take risks, test experiments, and find new ways to try and try again.
Here, we build and launch rockets in Summer Camps (and learn from the inevitable—and fun—explosions). We build and test real horns in the Music & Sound Lab (and enjoy the horns that blare and those not quite able to toot). After all, as J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan said, “We are all failures – at least the best of us are.” Come join us and try out your ideas, no matter how experimental. Come innovate with us. We are excited to play, fail, and learn with you!
“Failing Toward Success.” American Alliance of Museums (March/April 2017).
“One reason young people don’t go into science? We don’t fail well.” STAT News (3/21/2017).
“How People Learn to Become Resilient.” The New Yorker (2/11/2016).