The Forbidden Fruit of Failure

We’ve mapped failure to the wrong words. And this mis-mapping is so strong and deep that un-mapping seems unlikely. I propose failure, as a word, be scratched from the dictionary.

Failure is learning in the form of experiments (including the thought kind) with outcomes different than theorized, where the outcomes create a more complete understanding of theory, or learning.

Wrong is mapped to failure, but failure should be mapped with – different than our best understanding.

Newness is mapped to failure. Replace failure with learning and the mapping is right – more newness, more learning. This is why tolerance of failure (and newness) is a must – no newness, no failure, no learning.

Risk is mapped to failure. Replace failure with learning and the mapping is right – more risk, more learning. Risk cannot be forbidden, if we’re to learn.

Risk and newness are mapped to late, and, guilt by association, failure is mapped to late. Replace failure with learning and the mapping is right – learn fast to avoid being late. And now, after several paragraphs of un-mapping, hopefully the re-substitution makes sense – fail fast to avoid being late.

Failure isn’t failure, failure is learning.

3 Responses to “The Forbidden Fruit of Failure”

  • Doug Hoover:


    Thanks for putting it in writing. This gem will get passed around.

    I have heard similar before but not in such a short and concise post.

    I only used this one once but feel free to share it any way, “I finally succeeded in causing an instrument fault and I’m pleased to report it occurred outside our specified operating conditions.” I’ll leave you to imagine the response I got from the “Failure is not an option” and “There are no problems, only opportunities” crowd.

    My wife has bought me a few signs for my den over the years. Her Favorite is “Never Question The Engineers Judgment” she says it fits my personality perfectly. She also says, to my credit, that I’ve mellowed over the years.

    However the one I liked best is “I’m an Engineer, I solve problems”.

    In my mind, no failures = no more problems. But…

    It’s much easier to exist in the NPOO world (no problems, only opportunity) if you turn the thought process back on itself. I think I need to make a new sign for my den, I might even make one for the office while I’m at it.

    “I’m an Engineer, I have endless opportunities to solve problems”

    I’m not sure I can claim full credit for the quote but pass the word anyway.

    How about expanding the last line Mike?
    Failure isn’t failure, failure is learning and learning allows us to solve more problems and become better engineers.


  • Mike:

    Thanks, Doug. Glad you found it helpful. And thanks for passing it around. Mike

  • Nick Name:

    What is “failure” ? It is the proof that our knowledge is limited and that we cannot foresee what could happen (we deal with probability and assume that a low probability is acceptable, which is an error since even a low probability does not mean that it could not occur). This a NORMAL situation since our knowledge will NEVER be total. It will always be a side we did not know or did not expect to be so important in the given situation (a very good example is the too short protection wall at Fukushima, nobody expected a wave so high). This is human, the proverb say “nobody’s perfect” so that “every body can expect a failure”. I was for all my engineering life active in design of new products and of course I had also failures, not many but there were some. I was not happy, I did not enjoy them but from every one I learned a LOT not only in the direction of the failure origin but also in connected fields and in the working method to avoid failures in the future.
    Unfortunately many “decision people” do not have the necessary experience to understand such aspects and still consider “failure” as a failure and not as a necessary step to progress.

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