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The Gift of Failure

09Dec 2007

Earlier this week, I had the unique opportunity of a quiet evening alone at home. I had been working fairly hard, so I decided to “kick back” a little and I rented a movie. Now, my movie watching patterns are different than most adults. Given the type of work I do, I usually am not that interested in some high intensity, adrenaline-rush thriller. And rarely do I want to see a drama with a lot of intense relational issues. No, when I watch a movie I often want to escape from reality into the realm of comedy — and even further from reality into the world of animation (I really am a kid at heart).

So this week I picked up Meet the Robinsons, a delightful film about a boy who grows up in an orphanage and who wants to be an inventor. Lewis repeatedly meets potential adoptive parents but usually blows the interview by trying to impress them with his latest invention which always malfunctions and creates some kind of chaos. There are a lot of wonderful lessons from the story, but let me focus on one scene.

Lewis is visiting a family in the future (he traveled there in a time machine) and they ask him to try to fix a machine they have that is malfunctioning. But, like all the other times, after he “fixes” it, the machine goes haywire and makes a mess of everyone. But, instead of getting angry or being disappointed, the family starts to congratulate Lewis. “Way to go!” “Great failure!” “We’re so proud of you!” They are smiling, laughing and clapping. It is a stunning moment — both for Lewis and for me.

Lewis expresses his confusion at their responses and they go on to explain that their father, who is a highly successful and famous inventor, taught them that failure is a good thing. Because when you fail, you are able to learn what doesn’t work. Failure, from their point of view, was the beginning of success. As a result, failure is to be celebrated and embraced.

“But failure, in and of itself, isn’t the key to success”, they continue. They then inform him of the family motto, which they repeat so often he gets tired of hearing it. “Keep moving forward.” When ever one experiences failure, they explain, you learn from it but also pick yourself up and “keep moving forward”. You try again. You don’t give up. You try something else to overcome the challenge in your way.

So, like all good children’s books and movies, Lewis succeeds — both in becoming a famous and successful inventor but also in finding a family that loves and values him. And it has a nice, “feel good” ending. My kind of movie.

But the lesson was stunning to me. Here is a simple children’s animated movie and it is teaching a key component of life and business success I hear over and over from the successful businesspeople with whom I work. “To what do you attribute your business and financial success?” I ask them.

“Perseverance.” “We didn’t give up even when times were bad.” “We kept doing what we knew was the right thing to do.” “We didn’t accept ‘failure’ as an option.” Essentially, they did not accept failure as the the stopping point of their efforts. They kept trying.
I am still challenged by the response of the Robinson family in the movie — they rejoiced, were excited and not at all discouraged when someone failed. They maintained a positive outlook, supported and encouraged the person, and had the perspective — “OK, now what are you going to do to make it better this next time?”

This is not “pie in the sky”, let’s hold hands and sing Kum-by-ya. This is reality based feedback. Perseverance works. Giving up does not. I need this encouragement as I face my own small setbacks throughout the week. And it was a delightful surprise to hear this message from a silly, animated movie.

“Great failure!” “Keep moving forward!” I hope I can foster this attitude in my life and in my interactions with those around me. Let’s try it!

p.s. For another “feel good” animated movie with positive life lessons, watch Robots which has the wonderful theme of an inventor whose motto is “Find a need, meet a need.”

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