The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Strategic choices

Failing is a complex experience.

Much of it is how people perceive the context of the failure, but the inner reaction is just as relevant.

Thomas Alva Edison worked hard to invent the light bulb. “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” he wrote. “I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.”

From his perspective, it was work that required experimenting and continuing to do so until a solution could be found. For him, a failed experiment was nothing else than having ruled out an option. It told him that he was moving towards his goal.

Could he know that he would find it one day? Probably not. However, his studies had given him enough reason to believe in the relentless pursuit of his dream. They gave him enough information to know that he wasn’t at a dead end and thus had no reason to quit.

Had he quit, it would have been when no options were left or after having used up all his resources and time. In that case, his dream would have been over, and he would have failed.

Others in his team, as he describes it, most probably would have given up, which also would have been failing. Or, they might not even have started assuming that the task was impossible to achieve given the number of options available. Which also would have been a way to fail.

Something very different would have been if his studies had allowed him to learn that his approach wasn’t promising enough or would not have allowed commercializing of the light bulb. In that case, he could have chosen to quit. That is to make a strategic choice and invest his energy in a different project.

Having achieved making as many inventions as he did, it is to be expected, that he made numerous strategic choices to end a group of experiments and move on to others.

Failing could also have occurred had he avoided assessing the results of studies proving that it would not work or by simply assuming that believing in his idea was enough. He would never have known if his experiments could work out or not. In that case, persisting in trying could just as well have been a persistent devotion to his dream. Had he then one day given up or run out of time, we would never have heard of him and his failure.

With such a story as Edison’s, it may be hard to imagine how others could have failed in his situation.

Making the decisions he made is much easier to explain in hindsight. His assets were his ability to only see failure in not trying and not being thorough. It was his personal view of what failure is and what worth trying means that allowed him to succeed.

Without clarity on what failure means for oneself, it is not possible to make these choices. But it is even less possible if the possibility to succeed is not accessible as a follow-up to having failed.




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