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  • Matthew Kelly

The Key to Failing Well: Lessons From Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein


Both Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein powerfully illustrated this lesson. Both of these men suffered through failure more than most, and yet they became our greatest inventor and mathematician, respectively. Day after day they grappled with trial and error, mistakes and frustration, disappointment and defeats, and moments of complete disillusionment. But they viewed these set- backs, adversities, defeats, and failures as clues to the discoveries they were seeking. They genuinely believed that their failures signified progress.


The story of Edison’s effort to find a way to keep a lightbulb burning is well known. He tried more than ten thousand combinations of materials before he found the one that worked. People asked him later in his life how he could continue after failing that many times. He said he didn’t see the other attempts as failures. He then went on to explain that he had successfully identified ten thousand ways that didn’t work and that each attempt brought him closer to the one that would. He saw his failures as progress.


Einstein, whom many people believe to be the smartest man who ever lived, said, “I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.”


Why do we perpetuate the belief that it is not okay to fail? Failure plays an important role in our development and a critical role in our attempts to become perfectly ourselves. Whatever pattern of defeat you may find yourself in right now, remember these three abiding truths:

1. Other people before you have successfully overcome the obstacles you face; seek them out and draw strength from their stories and example.


2. All of your past failures leave you better equipped than ever before to succeed in your next attempt.


3. It will never be easier to break that pattern of defeat than it is right now.

Allow the words of Benjamin Barber to echo deep within you:

I divide the world into learners and non-learners. There are people who learn, who are open to what happens around them, who listen, who hear the lessons. When they do something stupid, they don’t do it again. And when they do something that works a little bit, they do it even better and harder the next time. The question to ask is not whether you are a success or a failure, but whether you are a learner or a non-learner.


Matthew Kelly


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