This is a story about the American inventor, Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb among other things and failure.
In 1914 when he was 67 years old, his factory caught fire and was destroyed. The building was thought to be made of reinforced concrete and so although the contents were worth over $2million the building and contents were only insured for slightly less than $240,000. No matter what way you look at it this was a disaster. His entire life’s work went up in flames.
At the factory his son was in a panic but Edison simply asked, ‘Where is your mother? go and find her and bring her here, she will never see anything like this in her life’.
What kind of reaction is that to your life’s work going up in flames? Surely, he should have gone into crisis mode or at least been a little bit more upset about it. Perhaps this type of failure is not what it seems.
How to reframe failure
So, let’s think about it, why was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century so calm about losing everything he worked for? Well, the next day when the fires were eventually put out with the help of 9 fire engines and their firefighters, he was asked that very question by a journalist.
His answer much like his answer about inventing the lightbulb is inspiring.
About the lightbulb he was asked years previously if he ever felt like giving up following hundreds of iterations that simply did not work. His reply was that he had not failed hundreds of times; he had found hundreds of ways that did not work so he could disregard them.
Having lost his entire life’s work through the burning down of his factory and again faced with the same type of question about how he could be so calm in the face of failure he replied: “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”
Failure is a state of mind
Think about that for a second. A world famous inventor’s work is a failure and he loses everything he has ever worked for and his reply was to rejoice in the fact that he could start all over again. And remember….he was 67 when this happened. A spring chicken he was not.
When I first heard this story I asked myself if I could (or would) react in the same way. Thomas Edison knew something that the reporter did not. He knew it was his choice to decide what the burning of his factory meant. He could have become angry, sure. He could have started an inquiry to figure out who was to blame and have them fired. He could have quit and retired. All of these were options.
Giving in to failure is never an option.
None of them would reverse time and stop the fire from happening. He chose something different. He chose to embrace it. He wanted his wife to see this fire that had multi-coloured flames due to all the weird and wonderful chemicals he was using. There was no point in being upset about it because that would not change the outcome. He was literally accepting reality and taking the positives from it.
This was not a failure, it was an opportunity.
How many times in your life have you had so called disasters? Times where you lost a job or got sick or found yourself in a rut.
Is it possible that when these things happen that they are not in fact disasters but opportunities to learn from?
We have the power to control how we view and react to failures
There is a great equation that sums this up neatly.
E + R = O
E represents the events that happen, you cannot control these. They are things like; someone lets a door swing in your face; you get sick; your factory burns down.
O is the outcome, that is, what the event means to you. You have some control over that but only if you think about R.
R is your reaction. How you interpret the event, what you decide it means, the lens through which you view it. This, your ‘R’ is what you have control over. There is a fantastic quote from Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
You always get to choose how you respond, no matter how small the gap between the stimulus and your response. Choose carefully. Most of the time what you consider failure is just an opportunity to grow and learn.
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