Fail Like You Mean It

Inventor Dean Kamen discusses how successful creative people fail frequently, rarely work linearly and never give up.
  • Transcript


Question: How is it when the creative process hits a dead end?


Dean Kamen: I wouldn’t know what it’s like to hit a dead end. Every project I’ve ever worked on ends up ahead of schedule and on the budget. We always get it right the first time and we shipped it. And it’s always perfect. But I can imagine that there are a lot of people that don’t have that situation.

Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. Every project we’ve ever done without exception, we start out with some simple objective. It always seem simple and then you get into the ugly reality of trying to accomplished that simple objective and nature, it’s not cruel but it’s very subtle and inevitably, you’re surprised along the way as you try to make things happen and almost all the surprises are bad surprises. New problems keep cropping up. Things that seem that they should work, don’t. A simple elegant idea turns out to have a bunch of ugly facts are related to that elegant idea, and no matter how elegant the idea is, the facts win. So you rethink that idea, you try different strategies, you employ different technologies.

And as you said, in the end if it finally works. People think you start it with this idea, you went on a straight line and concluded with this product. In fact, they not only think that but the way media present it, it reinforces that because media has a finite amount of time to tell a story. Media has a finite attention span.

Nobody wants to hear literally the five years of frustration that you took taking the wrong paths. For one thing, no matter how fast you’d speak, if they ask you about this project that took you five years, if they really wanted the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it would take you five years to tell it. You don’t have to tell all the crazy places you got on a piece of spaghetti and you ran through every strand of spaghetti in that bowl until you got to the end. They don’t want to know all about that spaghetti. They want to know where you started and as quickly as they can, they want to know the result and how it can affect them.

So we all, as a matter of course, when I asked about how we do anything in our lives, we start with some big thought, we might tell a few of the funny incidental side-path, but then in a finite amount of time, an interview and a book, we get to the conclusion people want. At best, with a couple of references to a little sidepath here and there.

As a consequence of all of that, people begin to think that some inventor in fact really starts with a big idea, runs along the line, gets to the conclusion, ships it off and starts the next idea, when in fact, at least in my case, you jumped in the spaghetti bowl, you crawled over every strand in that bowl. Some of them will swear you, covered at least five times, and then if you finally ever emerged at the other end, where you want it to be, which does sometimes happen but it is rare. Instantly you forget about all that spaghetti in the bowl. You bask for a moment in the victory of getting where you want it to be. The story gets told as a little quip and you move on. And the great myth that it was a straight line is unintentionally, I think, supported by that.

The most consistent character I have ever seen of people that succeed is that they never give up. They work and they work and they work and they fail, not once in a while, but they fail way, way, way more often than most people fail because they are trying to do something that other people haven’t done yet. And when you try to do something that hasn’t been done, when you have been given the road map, because no road map exists yet, you’re obviously going to get more mistakes and take more wrong turns than anybody that likes to travel with a map.

So those people that go out and try to do a new and different thing fail away more often than the people that don’t. It doesn’t matter however because once they succeed they hand all of us the map, and then we enjoy the benefits of all their failures and they move on to try to solve the next problem.


Conducted on: June 9, 2009.