The Museum of Failure teaches visitors that when things don’t turn out the way they should, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, motivating them to take on new challenges. From the earliest age, we are taught to chase after success. It starts with school grades and continues with school diplomas, job titles, profits, and even the accomplishments of our offspring. We try to avoid failure as much as we can, and we do our best to push it aside when it inevitably happens. Without even realizing it, we deprive ourselves of valuable experience from which we could greatly benefit in our future endeavors.
Dr. Samuel West has always been keenly aware of the positive sides of failure, and his Museum of Failure, located right on the waterfront in Helsingborg, Sweden, teaches a vital lesson that most companies would rather keep for themselves: “The majority of all innovation projects fail.” But there’s more the visitors of the museum can learn besides the fact that Apple, Google, Sony, or Lego are just as prone as anyone else to making faulty assumptions and committing vast resources to ideas that, in hindsight, seem ridiculous. If you don’t see yourself boarding a plane to Sweden anytime soon, we have created a list of five lessons in failure as they are taught by various failed products and businesses in the Museum of Failure.
1. Learn to Embrace Failure as Part of the Process
Almost fifteen years before Apple released the first iPhone, the company had launched a series of personal digital assistants called Apple Newton. The first Apple Newton seemed to have everything it needed to become a huge success: a proprietary operating system, Newton OS, a large-format screen, plenty of internal memory, the ability to print to a wide assortment of printers, and, most importantly, a built-in handwriting recognition capability. But when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first decisions he made was to kill the Newton project. Why? Because the first Newton personal digital assistant launched with broken handwriting recognition, which was supposed to be the device’s killer feature, and instantly became a subject of ridicule. Although numerous improvements have been made over the years, and the Newton even became popular in some circles, the damage was already done: Apple’s reputation had been damaged.
In Job’s mind, the technology behind the Newton held tremendous potential, but it was not yet ready for prime time. He embraced the failure of the Newton, learned from its mistakes, and used the experience to give the world be best smartphone it had seen: the first iPhone. What we can all learn from the story of the Apple Newton is how important is to fail fast, learn from the failure, and never repeat the same mistake twice. After all, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
2. Stop Chasing Perfection
In the 1970s, there was a war going on. A war not many people remember in our day and age of cloud storage services and microSD cards capable of holding hundreds of gigabytes of data, but an important war nonetheless. On one side: Sony and its Betamax cassette format; on the other side: JVC with its VHS cassette format. In this war, Sony had the upper hand. The company’s VHS format was clearly superior, its cassette recorders were better made, and Sony was also the more recognized company out of the two. In other words, Betamax seemed like the perfect format. Except it wasn’t. Despite its technical superiority, Betamax failed because it was trying to solve the wrong problem. Sony was marketing the format as a way how to enjoy TV shows after they had been aired, essentially offering the promise of on-demand television in the era where TV guides and strict air times ruled the entertainment industry. JVC had a different plan for its VHS (Video Home System) format. The company created relationships with the nascent video rental industry, and when that market exploded, VHS tapes were suddenly everywhere, leaving consumers wanting to watch movies at home little choice as to which format to go with. Keep the story of Sony versus JVC in mind when you begin working on your next big project. To succeed, it takes more than a great idea—you also need brilliant execution.
3. You Only Need to Succeed Once
Before the first successful test of a carbon-filament lamp on 22 October 1879, Thomas Edison conducted countless failed experiments with up to 10,000 different materials. It’s difficult for the average person to comprehend Edison’s perseverance. Why didn’t he give up and worked on other things? Because to Edison, each failed experiment only brought him one step closer to his goal. Yes, Edison had no idea how many steps it would take him to succeed, but he knew well that he only needed to succeed once. Consider the story of the Israeli technology company Mobileye, which is to be acquired by Intel for $15.3 billion, making the deal the largest exit in Israel’s high-tech industry to date. Mobileye was founded in 1999 by Amnon Shashua, a researcher of the Hebrew University who developed a solution for a vision system which could detect vehicles using only a camera and software algorithms on a processor. While Mobileye has been offering sophisticated image-processing solutions to automotive manufacturers such as BMW, General Motors, and Volvo for many years prior to the acquisition offer from Intel, the value of the company skyrocketed only after the recent explosion of the electric vehicle and the self-driving vehicle markets. Understandably, Mobileye’s road to success was far from straightforward, as illustrates the company’s timeline, but all it takes is one success to justify all the failures and missteps, which is the lesson we should all take to heart.
4. Get Lost to Find the Right Way
“Worn like a regular pair of glasses, and equipped with a small display in the corner of one’s field-of-view, Google Glass was supposed to give users quick access to notifications, navigation instructions and more, all without the need to take out their phone,” writes the American entertainment website Variety about one of many tech exhibits that can be seen in the Museum of Failure. Originally, Google positioned Glass as a general-purpose device, but it quickly became evident what a
huge mistake that was. Not only was Glass prohibitively expensive, costing $1700 at launch, but it also came with a built-in camera, which sparked a huge privacy backlash against the few Glass owners who
were wearing the device in public. Many have suggested that Google should abandon the project, arguing that the time has yet to come for augmented reality to become successful. Instead of listening to these voices, Google has been taking its
time to find the right path, and it seems that the company has succeeded. “Workers in many fields, like manufacturing, logistics, field services, and healthcare find it useful to consult a wearable device for information and other resources while their hands are busy. That’s why we’ve spent the last two years working closely with a network of more than 30 expert partners to build customized software and business solutions for Glass for people in these fields,” Jay Kothari, who leads
the Google Glass project, revealed in July on the company blog. What the next chapter for Google Glass looks like can be seen on the official website of the project, which also serves as an excellent example of why it’s sometimes necessary to go down the wrong path.
5. Failure Can Teach You What Success Cannot
Success is motivating, inspiring, and rewarding but it’s not humbling. The downfall of so many naturally gifted individuals has been their inability to accept failure and overcome obstacles. Despite the abundance of natural talent, many prodigies fall from grace soon after their rise to the top because they perceive failure as something alien and are unable to learn from it. When Michael Jordan tried out for the varsity basketball team during his sophomore year, he was deemed too short to play at that level. Determined not to let the opinion of a single coach change the course of his life, Jordan persevered and ultimately became the greatest basketball player of all time. If you ever come face to face with failure because you have not been blessed with the same gifts as many of your peers, remind yourself, as far-fetched as it may seem, that they have not been blessed with the opportunity to learn how to use failure to their advantage early in life, leaving them vulnerable and defenseless when even they inevitably experience how failure tastes like.
View below some more treasures from the Museum of Failure for you to feast on