Growing a Small Business: The Myth of Failure

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

Did you ever feel like you’ve just wasted a full day (or a week or a month) trying things that didn’t pan out? As someone trying to grow a small business,I feel that way pretty often. I get an idea or inspiration that launches a frenzy of activity. I feel inspired and energetic, certain that I’ve hit upon the thing I had been missing–that turning point, Eureka moment, or flash of insight that’s going to propel my business forward. I’ll go from fledgling startup to overnight success story! I’ll acquire a new set of “problems”– like how to fill orders fast enough or respond to the many queries stacking up in my Instagram account.

In reality, most ideas result in modest process improvements or slight upticks in sales, or fizzle out entirely. The energy and inspiration I felt in the beginning starts to wane as I go down various rabbit holes of investigation. I become intimidated by the competition or overwhelmed by the logistics of following through and end up retreating to my comfort zone. Then comes the realization that I’ve spent the better part of a week pursuing a lost cause and am wasting precious time–and panic sets in. The whole process usually ends with doubling down on what I was already doing, because at least it got me this far, right?

Missteps Essential to Discovery

The cycle can be depressing. However, what is the entrepreneurial process about if not trying new things? All the business gurus tell us that we have to fail to succeed. When you really think about it, “failure” is a misnomer. As Thomas Edison says in the quote above, failing is essential to the process of discovery. There’s value in knowing something doesn’t work. According to The Franklin Institute, between 1878-1880, Edison worked on at least 3,000 different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp. He never became hopeless or discouraged, although many of his associates and assistants would happily have thrown in the towel. It’s no wonder that the lightbulb has become a universal symbol for ideas and invention.

Trying new things doesn’t always turn out as we plan or hope but it’s almost always better than doing nothing, and it can yield unexpected benefits. At the very least, we will learn or experience something new. Better, that new lesson or experience might trigger a solution to a completely different problem–one we never otherwise would have solved or perhaps even tackled. We may “fail” to achieve whatever we initially sought but discover something potentially more valuable in the process.

Mistakes That Triggered Famous Inventions

History is ripe with such examples. Storypick’s list of 10 world-altering inventions that were made by mistake includes penicillin, the microwave oven, and X-ray images. A New York Times obituary of Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the pacemaker, relays that Greatbatch’s crucial insight came while he was an assistant professor working on a heart rhythm recording device. He reached into a box of parts for a resistor to complete the circuitry and pulled out the wrong size. When he installed it, the circuit emitted electrical impulses very similar to the rhythm of a human heart. The realization launched him on a path that eventually led to the first implantable pacemaker device.

I don’t expect my ideas will ever change the world but I find these stories helpful in staying focused and motivated. Things change or improve when we take action. I sometimes find myself getting into a negative frame of mind, wondering, “when is something good going to happen to me?” Those kinds of thoughts lead nowhere. Nothing good (or bad) happens as long as I go along accepting the status quo–which is something I rejected when I started this business in the first place. “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin”, as the old song goes.

Wise Words for Inspiration

Below are a few more quotes from successful people that I find inspirational in times of doubt (find more on WisdomQuotes). Keep trying until you find what works!

  • Failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Henry Ford
  • I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” -Michael Jordan
  • Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” – James Joyce
  • Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein
  • The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knowsBuddha

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