James Dyson’s Lessons in Failure
Six lessons in failure (and success) I took from Dyson’s work.

May 21, 2014

James Dyson and Lessons in Failure

Without fail, we’ll all fail at some point in life. But failure is not the death sentence of our ideas, our inventions and especially not of our successes, unless, of course, we allow it to be.

So in essence, failure is the starting point of success. To succeed, we must fail.

Winston Churchill said that success is stumbling from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. So failure, then, is the paraphernalia we need to succeed and from which we can produce innovative ideas. Like James Dyson, who more than 5000 attempts later, created the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. It was some time in 1979, he says he was told that “if there were a better kind of vacuum cleaner, Hoover or Electrolux would have invented it”, James Dyson, Against The Odds: An Autobiography. But then with dual cyclone technology, he created the bagless vacuum.

Dyson never lost his enthusiasm. And with a philosophy of thinking differently and making mistakes to invent things that work better, he continues to reap the rewards to this day. Today he’s a successful billionaire, with a net worth of $4, 6 billion, according to Forbes, who, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, had encountered many stumbling blocks on the road to success.

But what sets men like Dyson apart from the rest? How did he turn his failures into success? Could it be a gene for genius or does it extend beyond genetic superiority?

Remember what has been said about insanity (and no, it wasn’t Einstein who said it)? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. See men like Dyson as the antithesis of insanity, by this definition.

But the reality is; failure, whether at sport, getting a girl’s number, acing a test or inventing something, can be a blow to any man’s ego, which can cause some to never try again. That’s because not every man has the drive to rise from his failures, but a little motivation goes a long way… So here are six lessons in failure (and success) I took from Dyson’s work:

Failure is a necessary evil
You won’t exactly get a noddy badge for a botched job, but like taxes, failure is inevitable. Dyson encourages making mistakes because failure can actually serve as a window of opportunity. One through which we’re able to see our mistakes and a process through which we can find solutions.

See success as a process/journey
Stop being so hard on yourself! It’s rare for anyone to succeed at first attempt, especially on big projects. Some may only fail once, others, like Dyson, over 5 000 times. The result? A new world-class invention. You could be next.

There’s always room for improvement
Yes, the vacuum cleaner already existed when Dyson envisioned a better one. But was it efficient enough? Compact enough? Not exactly. Could it work more efficiently? Dyson thought so, and so he made it work better with dual cyclone technology. Look around you, introspect… There’s always something around you, the mouse you’re scrolling with, the screen you’re viewing from, even your way of thinking, that can be improved. It will make everyone’s lives easier.

You need to be resilient
Critique is everywhere. Some didn’t believe in Dyson’s ideas (because of blinkered thinking), but did it stop him? No. He removed himself from negative company and started on his project with an old friend (who must’ve believed in him and his ideas). Find people like that.

Reflect on your mistakes
Learn from your mistakes. You hear this all the time (and probably roll your eyes), but there’s truth in this. You don’t just learn by making a mistake, though. You need to actively reflect on what you’ve done wrong, or what did not work in your previous attempts. This will allow you to explore other tools and methods to find a solution to your task or situation.

You gotta get up and try and try (and try)
Even in reflection, in learning from your mistakes, nothing could materialise. Not everyone’s a Dyson, an Einstein or Steve Jobs. If it’s a useless invention, it could render worthless on the market and no one will invest in it. So please make sure your invention has a purpose, there’s a market for it and it will have a good ROI. If that’s not the case, you could be looking through rose-coloured glasses and investing your time, energy and money in the wrong thing. Worry not, there could be a million other (good) things to invent.

Learning to love failure, and learning from failure, is key to success.  Through failure, we learn what we didn’t know before. We learn what we shouldn’t do again. But most of all, at failure’s demise, could lie solutions.

– Ashraf Booley