If the prospect of visiting the Volvo Studio and the ABBA Museum is not sufficient incentive for you to book a weekend trip to Stockholm this summer, the recently opened Museum of Failure could tip the balance.
It houses over seventy failed products from around the world, such as Sony’s Betamax, Harley Davidson’s motorbike-scented perfume, and a beef lasagne marketed by none other than Colgate.
Bizarre maybe, but the Museum highlights the role of failure in the risky business of product innovation. There are echoes of the columnist Mike Malone’s unexpected description of Silicon Valley as a ‘graveyard’, because ‘failure is its greatest strength’.
But, let’s be honest, we prefer success to failure. Success teaches us what we’re good at. Our achievements early in life shape our identity and sense of self-worth.
Failure, on the other hand, can leave us feeling hollow, drained, frustrated, and confused. Failure undermines our self-confidence and dissipates our hopes. While it may be fine for Silicon Valley start-ups to fail, we don’t want our surgeons, air traffic controllers or our financial advisers getting in on the act.
As we progress through life, however, we come to realise that times of failure are, in fact, inevitable. I still recall with disturbing clarity the school cricket ground where I was bowled out first ball for the first time. It’s harder to admit other failures in relationships, professional life, and ministry, which have had a more profound impact.
Failure shapes us in ways that success never can. Many writers unpick the role that failure plays in our spiritual growth. Failure places us out of control and beyond the limit of our own resourcefulness. These are places we wouldn’t choose to be, but they are places we need to get to. As Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward: ‘we must stumble and fall … we must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide.’
Perhaps learning to ‘fail well’ is as critical for us individually as it is for great companies. It means resisting the instinct to retract our wounded hands and conceal our disappointed hearts. Instead, we donate our personal ‘exhibits’ of failure to a God who longs to teach us that he is trustworthy and gracious. And perhaps sorrow at our failure can be transformed into a dance of faith.
Nick is an HR consultant