Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The seniors at Bryant University asked me to write the faculty reflection that is published in the commencement edition of the student newspaper. Here is what I wrote to them:

You will fail! Everyone does at various points in their lives. As you leave Bryant, I encourage you not to simply dream of the success you wish to achieve in your lives. I hope that you will dream big dreams and pursue them with invigorating passion. However, you must also consider the role of failure in a successful person’s life. How will you react when you stumble and fall? You will stumble after all. We all do. Great innovators encounter failure numerous times. The most successful people exhibit remarkable persistence and resilience in the face of failure. They pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes, and move forward. Thomas Edison failed many times in his career. Reflecting on his missteps, he said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Consider the case of James Dyson. Described as a “tireless tinkerer,” he perfected his revolutionary bagless vacuum cleaner after years of trial and error. Today, Dyson ranks as one of the richest men in the world. Despite all that success, Dyson loves talking about the importance of failure in his life. “I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right,” said Dyson. “There were 5,126 failures, but I learned from each one. That's how I came up with a solution. So I don't mind failure.” He argues that we often fool ourselves into believing that successful products emerge from a moment of “effortless brilliance.” To him, failures provide keen insights that enable invention. Dyson explains, “We're taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven't, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that's very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It's exciting, actually.”

Maxine Clark founded and continues to serve as chief executive of Build-a-Bear Workshop. Clark has built an incredibly successful company. She has done so by delivering a world-class customer experience in her stores. Clark credits her store associates, who constantly find ways to innovate and improve. How do the associates do it? For starters, they tend not to fear admitting a mistake. Clark’s attitude toward mistakes explains her associates’ behavior. She does not punish people for making an error or bringing a problem to light; she encourages it. Clark credits her first grade teacher, Mrs. Grace, for instilling this attitude toward mistakes in her long ago. As many elementary school teachers do, Mrs. Grace graded papers using a red pencil. However, Mrs. Grace gave out a rather unorthodox award at the end of each week. She awarded a red pencil prize to the student who had made the most mistakes! Why? Mrs. Grace wanted her students engaged in the class discussion, trying to answer every question - no matter how challenging. As Clark writes, "She didn't want the fear of being wrong to keep us from taking chances. Her only rule was that we couldn't be rewarded for making the same mistake twice."

Clark has applied her first grade teacher's approach at Build-a-Bear by creating a Red Pencil Award. She gives this prize to people who have made a mistake, but who have discovered a better way of doing business as a result of reflecting upon and learning from that mistake. Clark has it right when she says that managers should encourage their people to "experiment freely, and view every so-called mistake as one step closer to getting things just right." Of course, her first grade teacher had it right as well when she stressed that people would be held accountable if they made the same mistake repeatedly. Failing to learn constitutes the bad behavior that we should deem unacceptable.

At Bryant, you have not only learned many ideas and concepts. You have learned to think more critically. You have learned how to learn. The faculty has tried to nurture and develop you, so that you can become effective lifelong learners. We hope that you will not fear failure in your lives. Embrace it and learn from it. Even in his later years, after remarkable accomplishments, the great Renaissance artist and sculptor Michelangelo used to say, “I am still learning.” I hope that you will maintain that attitude throughout your lives, particularly in those moments when you stumble and fail. Pick yourselves up and move forward, with confidence that you have the ability to fulfill your dreams. Remember that failing to learn represents the only true failure in our lives.