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Failure is the conservatory of success

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Gyan Nagpal, author of Talent Economics, shows how spectacular failures defined rockstar talent.

Most people already know the general story around Henry Ford’s endearing contribution to both the means and method of business. He was 40 years old when he incorporated the Ford Motor Company, 45 when he launched the iconic Model T automobile, 50 when he revolutionised manufacturing forever by introducing a previously unimagined “integrated moving assembly line” in his factories. An innovation so powerful that it took the “per-unit” manufacturing time of the Model T from an already efficient 12.5 hours per unit down to 90 minutes. And he was 51 when he stunned corporate America by doubling the daily wage for his workers to $5 (reportedly to counter high employee turnover caused by the monotony of life on the assembly line), a move which clearly worked- for close to 10,000 people inundate Ford’s hiring office the next morning.

Clearly, Henry Ford was a once in a generation businessman, and successful by any yardstick. By his 55th birthday, half of all cars in the United States were Model Ts, and when he died at the ripe old age of 84, Ford was worth an estimated $200 Billion in today’s money. But, hidden within this story of a perceptive futurist, game-changing inventor and maverick businessman, there exists another sub-story few know of.

A machine apprentice at 16, young Henry Ford discovered his passion for combustion engines in his early twenties. A few years later, while working night shifts at Thomas Edison’s power firm (The Edison Illumination Company), he used his daylight hours to build an engine out of scrap, in a shed behind his house. In fact, while still employed at the illuminating company, Ford got to meet Edison and showed him his plans for a gasoline powered automobile. The great inventor smiled and encouraged him to pursue his dreams.

By 33, Ford had designed and built his first car, the quadricycle:  a simple, functional product involving four bicycle wheels mated to a four horsepower engine.  This man surely had big things coming, yet the next ten years were probably the most trying times of his life. 

As a young and ambitious engineer, Ford tried and failed several times. His first company, The Detroit Motor Company, had to be shuttered and eventually dissolved before its second anniversary. Primarily because Ford refused to release a product till it was perfect in his eyes; a habit which infuriated both the Board and his financial benefactors. The company ended up building just 20 automobiles over its lifetime, ensuring investors eventually lost close to six times their initial capital. 

Refusing to give up, Ford managed to secure funding for a second attempt, and in 1901 The Henry Ford Company was born. However, resenting the close supervision his wary investors forced upon him, Ford fought and eventually left the company less than a year later. In a strange twist of fate, once Ford left, the company renamed itself Cadillac and using Ford’s unfinished design and an engine sourced from Leyland, launched the first Cadillac product the next year. 

In his prime years, with his reputation and credibility in tatters, most would have forgiven Ford for cutting his losses and giving up. But Henry Ford, thankfully, had other ideas.

If there is one theme running through every success story, it is the ability to rise above failure. Almost every entrepreneur who has seen the sunrise from a pinnacle has also, at some time during that journey, or a previous one, survived a night or two in a ditch. Often with hungry wolves circling the periphery. This experience seems to be one of two constants in every biography I read. The other is luck, loosely defined as being in the right place at the right time. On that second point, I would argue that being lucky also seems to be the exclusive preserve of the optimistic in the first place. Those who risk everything on a new idea,  and help it catch fire. The lottery of chance aside, and to go back to our primary theme; In my readings and interviews, I remain gripped by the mechanisms of overcoming failure. To see a dream crumble and resist the urge to walk away. To give it a second, or third shot with even more enthusiasm than the first time. This often requires qualities which might seem delusional, fanatical and obsessive compulsive on the surface, yet hide in their belly, the powerful lessons that only past failure can provide. 

Faced with failure, some get the message immediately and go on to do other things. Like the visionary Japanese co-founders of Sony: Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita/ Ibuka and Morita's first product in post-war Japan was an electric rice cooker (pictured above), which was so poor in quality, it either undercooked or overcooked the precious and limited rice households had at the time. Hiding from angry housewives, they quickly learned their lesson and thankfully moved on the building transistor radios and tape recorders.
A more recent example is found in the life of billionaire entrepreneur and shark tank investor Mark Cuban, who was once fired for being a terrible carpenter, followed by another firing from an upmarket restaurant he worked at. All because he couldn’t open bottles of wine. Looking back today, and reflecting on past failures, Cuban says  “I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed. You only have to be right once . I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.”

Failure in a core-competence though, as we saw in Henry Ford’s example is quite different from the Sony founders inability to cook rice or Mark Cuban flubbing wine service. When you fail at the only thing you have a passion for, there is no luxury of a fresh start. The reputational baggage that you carry along makes the second attempt feel like a much steeper climb out of your own wreckage. There is no escaping this as Walt Disney found out: When he was fired from his first job as a cartoonist for allegedly “lacking imagination”, then declared bankrupt at 22, lost the ownership rights of his first successful animation “Oswald the Rabbit” at 26. Only to draw Mickey Mouse on a train ride the following year. Or Rowland Hussey Macy, who shuttered four failed stores over 12 years before trying once again in 1858. By 1870, his fifth store (on Fifth Avenue) was turning over a million dollars, laying the foundations of a retail empire spanning 800 locations today.

Each of these stories is a study in how to: a) trend-spot in changing times, b) develop ideas while simultaneously learning from each setback, c) resilience in the face of failure. Three attributes at the core of most business success stories, which are proving pivotal in the current global pivot towards a digital economy 

Ask yourself how does your current talent system treat failure? Is failure in the pursuit of new ideas allowed? If management structures create space for temporary failures in search of future success? The fact that we live in disruptive times, make these questions pertinent. Indeed, as we debate this topic in this book, globalisation, information technology and the shift from physical to digital solutions for everyday problems, are disrupting almost every sphere of business. 

Henry Ford will probably go down as the most consequential disruptor of 20th-century business. One who started out trying to engineer the future of transportation, but ended up disrupting manufacturing itself. I can't escape the irony that it was Thomas Edison - a man who probably laid claim to the same title in the 19th century - who failed to spot Ford's engineering talent. Ask yourself, if you were CEO, and had a 30-year-old with the potential to be a 21st century Henry Ford, hidden in the bowels of your company, how would you spot her ideas and how would her failures be treated by your talent system today? 

Indeed, the smartest talent today aren't intimidated by failure. By accepting, analysing and acting upon each defeat, they see failure as probably the best receptacle in which to grow real life-lessons.