Failing Forward

mistake-876597_640It was 1903 and French scientist Edouard Benedictus, reaching across his desk, accidentally knocked over a flask. It was empty, but the glass bottle fell to the floor shattered. Rather than breaking into thousands of jagged pieces though, this flask kept its form. It was broken, but retained its shape. Upon further investigation, Benedictus discovered that the bottle had previously contained plastic cellulose nitrate. The substance had dried and coated the inside, forming a film that held the broken pieces together. Thanks to the Frenchman’s clumsiness, the world was introduced to safety glass.


Like the rest of us, Alexander Fleming was anxious to start his vacation. The scientist was so anxious in fact, that he left work early and headed out of town for Labor Day weekend in 1928. Behind him, Fleming left a pile of dirty equipment, including several petri dishes containing bacteria he had been studying. When he returned and started cleaning up the mess, he noticed something strange about one of the dishes.  Like the other samples he’d left, the staphylococcus bacteria had grown unchecked in his absence. However, this particular dish had a spot of mold; and around the mold, the dish was clear – as if the mold had prevented the bacteria from propagating. Testing revealed that the mold also blocked other kinds of bacteria from growing as well. Thanks to his carelessness, Fleming had discovered penicillin.


In 1968, 3M employee Spencer Silver was working on a new formula for the adhesive company. He had been tasked with developing a super strong industrial glue. Silver’s most famous effort resulted in a glue that coagulated in to tiny spheres which, as desired, wouldn’t dissolve or melt and were very sticky. Unfortunately, the spheres didn’t provide much surface are for contact and the glue pulled away easily. A colleague saw potential in Silver’s failure though as a “temporarily permanent” adhesive. As a result, 3M’s Post-it Notes became a must-have in every office across America.


Accidents, oversights, and missteps aren’t something most of us look forward to. We’ve missed the mark and see it as failure. However, as these and countless others have discovered through the years, our failures often lead to our biggest triumphs. That is, if we know how to approach them. Mistakes aren’t so bad if we approach them the right way. The next time you goof up, try working through these steps.

  1. Accept it. Don’t try to deny the mistake, cover it up, or shift blame for it. Instead, acknowledge that mistakes will happen and treat them as a natural part of the success journey.

    How is this mistake helpful? What is the opportunity here?

  2. Study it. Take time to analyze the circumstances surrounding the error. Every attempt is useful so long as we expand our knowledge base and/or skill set.

    What events led up to this point? What can I learn from this?

  3. Act on it. Instead of retreating from mistakes and using them as reasons to give up, keep moving forward. Take the lessons learned from the attempt and either renew your efforts or modify tactics to zero in on the desired goal.

    What must I do differently? How can I reset and start again?


When asked about his repeated failures in inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison was constantly experimenting and developed many conveniences we still benefit from today. Eventually he held over 1,000 patents on his work, including the phonograph – which was invented by accident while trying to solve another problem. Aren’t you glad he messed up?