Fearless Failure in Innovation

When I started at Otherlab, they had successfully demoed a method for flexion-based soft actuation in exoskeletons.  Over the course of my first few months there, I developed the high-level geometry capable of extension-based actuation.  We adapted that geometry for use in the exoskeleton work across lower-extremity joints and in all of the fabric manipulator arms.  The geometry increased stability and torque dramatically.  It also decreased squirm and buckling.  This was a breakthrough for the team.

In reality, it’s important to note that I spent those first months completely failing.  It was pretty demoralizing.  It was a hard blow to the ego.  It was embarrassing to keep doing it.  That also made me determined to keep trying to prove that I was competent and that I could actually solve this problem.  Because I had failed so much, I was pretty fearless about losing my job.  I suggested experiments instead of completing the project.  I called brainstorming sessions with employees from other teams.  I became determined and relentless.  Once I lost the fear of failure, I finally succeeded.

For people who have worked in research or on innovative projects, spending months or even years on something and having it fail over and over again is not necessarily uncommon.  Experiencing failure every day is rough for someone who isn’t used to experiencing it.  Working on a team and failing is especially vulnerable.  Other people on the team might express irritability towards the work, not because it was done poorly, but because they want to see it succeed as much as you do!  It’s important not to take it personally.

Success is only an amalgamation of a series of failures.  Success is easy.  Failing is hard.  Getting comfortable with failing is critical.