When you fail, do you owe it to anyone else to share the story? I say, “yes, you do.” But, to get to that answer, you have to think about success and failure a little differently than you’re used to.
In The Middle Ages, early scientists called themselves alchemists. There were many, but they rarely knew each other. They wanted to learn to manipulate their world using chemical reactions—turn lead into gold, create an elixir of immortality, etc.
Fine goals, but there was a problem: many of the materials they experimented with are toxic, and they didn’t know it. Back then, if you wanted to know what happens when you drink mercury, you had to try it and find out!
These alchemists would die left and right trying crazy new experiments on themselves, not knowing their neighbor had just done the same the day before.
Eventually, alchemy became more popular and communication tools improved. Alchemists started sharing their experiments with their peers. More experiments could be tried, and progress moved faster. If something terrible happened to one, the rest of the community would know and they could avoid doing the same.
Finally, the scientific method was born, and alchemy transitioned into what we know today as chemistry where discovery and progress is made faster than the average person can keep up with and virtually no one dies in the process.
This is all because scientists are not ashamed or afraid to share their failures. They share them often and without hesitation because their goal is to advance everyone’s knowledge of how the world works, and figuring out how it doesn’t work is an essential piece of that puzzle.
Be A Scientist: Share Your Failures
Why do you tend to feel ashamed when you fail at something? Why is the natural reaction to hide it?
For me—and I imagine many others—the fear is that when you share something you’ve failed at, you’ll lose credibility. If you’re working on something important that requires commitment from others, you worry failure will set you back.
But compare this to a scientist. They also dedicate themselves to important goals. They also require commitment from a lot of people to advance their ideas. But they do not see failure as a setback. Instead, they see finding the wrong answer as getting one step closer to the right one.
Every scientist who has made a significant discovery also has an unfathomable pile of failures piled behind them. And the pile is well documented; there’s no hiding from it!
How do they manage to succeed among so many failures? Easy. They (and all the people they need to convince) do not look at success and failure the same as the Average Joe.
To the average person, success = desired outcome, and failure = undesired outcome. This is a narrow—and not very useful—way to look at success.
The scientist, however, does not have a desired outcome. Instead, they have a hypothesis, a question. Rather than saying “I will achieve this,” they say, “I will learn one way to either achieve this or not achieve this.”
Then, they run an experiment and the result is always an answer: it worked or it didn’t. There’s no room for failure in this model because every outcome is a success. Every experiment adds to the body of knowledge you and I and everyone else can use to understand the world.
What if you changed the way you think about your goals? What if—instead of setting goals—you created experiments, Each one either getting you the answer you want or one step closer to it.
When you think of your life and goals like that, failure is no longer an obstacle. And, more importantly, there is no shame in sharing what you’ve learned because it helps everyone.
And the best part? You’ll never get mercury poisoning.