Failure is the Best Medicine


Frustration and failure fuel Dyson’s success
In this terrific interview, Sir James Dyson explains how his innovative designs—the bagless vacuum cleaner made him a billionaire—only succeeded because of his past failures.

James Dyson, who traces his success to a string of failures.Photograph by Eva Rinaldi, courtesy Wikimedia
James Dyson traces his success to a string of failures.
Photograph by Eva Rinaldi, courtesy Wikimedia

Discussion ideas:

  • Watch this short video (“Turning Failure into Nobel Gold“), in which chemist Martin Chalfie describes “the real way science is done.” Chalfie’s colleague Osamu Shimomura conducted experiment after experiment where “Nothing worked!” Chalfie says. Shimomura only got a result after literally throwing the experiment away. How does this relate to Dyson’s innovation being “fed through frustration”?
  • Read this article (“Failure: The Key to Success“) about challenges posed by the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, explorer James Cameron‘s expedition to the deepest part of the ocean. “People think that when an experiment doesn’t give the result that the hypothesis stated going in, that it’s a failure,” Cameron says. “It’s not a failure! It’s an opportunity to learn. You know, we just learned something even though it didn’t happen the way we thought.” This echoes what Thomas Edison allegedly said after facing frustration searching for a filament for his light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” DEEPSEA CHALLENGE is an ongoing project. What challenges are Cameron and the rest of the team now examining, before the next dive? (“We now have to go back and review what didn’t work in the technology,” Cameron says, most notably the ability of the diver—Cameron—to control the sub’s arm to take more samples from the seafloor.)
  • Dyson says the “most important thing you need when redesigning something is perseverance and a willingness to fail.” Dyson became a billionaire inventor, Chalfie and Shimomura won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and Cameron is the first and only person to successfully make a solo dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. How has failure informed the careers of Dyson, Chalfie and Shimomura, and Cameron? What qualities do these men have in common?
  • Can students share some experiences where they were “willing to fail”? What did they learn from the experience? How did they persevere?

Note: We’re experimenting with a new feature here on the NG Education Blog. “Current Event Connection” posts will connect educators with news stories and relevant discussion ideas featuring content from the NG Education website. 


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