James Dyson Created 5,127 Versions of a Product That Failed Before Finally Succeeding. His Tenacity Reveals a Secret of Entrepreneurship. Sometimes wrong turns are what lead you to success.
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"Failure is interesting — it's part of making progress. You never learn from success, but you do learn from failure." — James Dyson, British inventor
Imagine spending five years of your life creating 5,127 versions of a product that failed. That's exactly what the inventor of cyclonic vacuum technology, James Dyson did. Until finally, one magical day, he hit gold — finally succeeding in creating the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner.
In some ways, entrepreneurship can seem like a type of madness — not unlike the obsessiveness that overtakes artists. But in Dyson's case, his patience and persistence eventually led to payoff: a multi-billion dollar company known for its creativity and forward-thinking designs.
Today, the Dyson vacuum cleaner is sold in more than 65 countries worldwide. In an interview with Entrepreneur, the inventor explained how he was able to accept a long series of failures without letting frustration overwhelm him. "We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it," he noted. "Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way. Life is a mountain of solvable problems, and I enjoy that."
Learning means being okay with not having all the answers
We live in a rapid-paced society where we access information with the click and point of our finger — which means we absorb data at an unprecedented velocity. You can ask me a question this instant and I will take out my smartphone and spew out random facts.
But is this...actually learning?
Sure, we can access Wikipedia and feel like we've become experts on a topic.
But true, legitimate learning doesn't come with ease. I am not advocating you quit researching things online (reading from reputable sources does expand our mind). What I do want is to rid ourselves of this false notion that learning is separate from discomfort.
Failing is painful, it makes you insecure and doubt everything. I know a little about this myself, because I've spent 16 years growing a business that has been met with many stumbles along the way.
But here's the secret to entrepreneurship few will say: You have to fall in love with failing. You have to fall in love with your hunger for learning, for discovery, for being an inventor.
I am a person who enjoys taking long hikes in nature alone. I've gotten lost on the wrong tracks more times than I can count. But the process of finding the right way out — of learning that there are many paths that can lead us to the right outcome, it's a lesson that stays with me both in my career and in my personal life.
I'd like to share some practical tips I've learned from experts and my own experience to help you become a life-long learner unafraid of making a wrong turn.
1. Cultivate the passion of the explorer
Harvard Business Review contributor John Hagell III wanted to get to the core of what motivates lifelong learners. What he discovered in his research is that rather than fear being an incentive for learning, it was those individuals who exhibited a "passion of the explorer" who were able to learn and grow.
"Explorers have a long-term commitment to achieving impact in a specific domain that excites them," he writes. "Anything from factory work or financial services to gardening or big wave surfing."
Hagel believes we all have the potential for this form of passion. "Go to a playground and watch children 5-6 years old. They have all of the elements required: curiosity, imagination, creativity, and a willingness to take risks, and connect with others."
Doing this in practice, however, can seem tricky. The fear of making a mistake is so ingrained in us. But it's possible to make these adjustments in our daily lives by making a conscious choice to experiment, test out new possibilities and adapt along the way.
The way of the explorer is to be comfortable with the unknown — because their curiosity surpasses their fears.
2. Practice questioning the status quo
I've offered Dyson as an example of someone taking years to perfect his product — but I should also offer myself as an example. One of our latest products, Jotform Tables, which allows teams to collect, organize, and manage data in an all-in-one workspace — took us a whopping three years to develop.
So I am well aware of what it means to relentlessly pursue a vision.
But so much of this process started out and evolved by resetting our status quo and in asking ourselves, What else is possible? How might we make our customer's lives even easier?
HBR co-authors Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis advocate for making learning a part of our daily routine, and part of that involves asking propelling questions to explore different ways of doing things. Here are some examples the researchers recommend asking both of ourselves and our teams:
- Imagine it's 2030. What three significant changes have happened in your industry?
- Which of your strengths would be most useful if your organization doubled in size?
- If you were rebuilding this business tomorrow, what would you do differently?
3. Embrace the growing pains of relearning
It isn't only failure that brings discomfort. At times it's being swept up in the changing tides we have no control over. If we've learned anything from this pandemic, it's that we've had to relearn how to do things in nearly every domain of our lives — parenting, communicating over Zoom, managing the endless fatigue of an ongoing crisis.
But these growing pains aren't all bad, according to HBR co-authors Tupper and Ellis. "Relearning is recognizing that how we apply our strengths is always changing and that our potential is always a work in progress," they note. "We need to regularly reassess our abilities and how they need to be adapted for our current context."
So, how do we remain nimble in the face of change? A few things that have worked for me: counting every small success at the end of each day (even writing it down as a reminder), maintaining my focus on what's working well and continuously being open to feedback.
For me, spending years on prototypes isn't just about tenacity; it's a question of faith. And it's this faith that gives us the courage, confidence and hope to persevere against all odds.