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Sam West, a psychologist who studies corporate behavior, believes fear of failure is a big obstacle to innovation. He launched an exhibit in Sweden in 2017 showcasing botched products and ideas to celebrate the role failure plays in innovation and progress. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Megan Thompson recently visited The Museum of Failure, which is now on tour in the United States.
Before the greatest inventions and breakthroughs take place—there are uncounted unsuccessful ideas. Thomas Edison made thousands of attempts before he invented the lightbulb. But what if those first failures had stopped him?
An exhibit now touring the country is reinforcing that old adage: if at first you don't succeed–try, try again. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Megan Thompson visited the museum of failure's first stop in Minneapolis.
So probably the most sort of recognizable part, feature here…
Psychologist Samuel West recently showed off this exhibit he's spent years curating.
A new car line with a lot of innovative features.
A brightly-colored collection featuring all kinds of commercial products by big-name companies. At first glance it might look like a celebration of corporate success. Not quite.
It was Ford's biggest failure.
Edsel. Designed for elegance.
It was available in so many different price ranges that people didn't understand. Is this a luxury car or is it a, you know, affordable car? What is it? This is a massive failure for Ford. In today's value, it's in the billions.
This is the Museum of Failure. A collection of more than 150 products that bombed. But this isn't about laughing at corporate flops.
I want people to realize and understand, truly understand, that if they don't take meaningful risks, there will be no progress.
It started when West was earning his Ph.D. in psychology, studying corporate behavior. He started noticing companies' reluctance to invest in the kind of experimentation that leads to innovation.
You explore new methods, new products, technology, et cetera. You're more likely than not to fail. In fact, 90 percent of those projects fail. And it became more and more apparent that the real obstacle to innovation is that people are afraid of failing. I was thinking, what can I do to communicate that we need to start accepting failure rather than stigmatizing failure?
West started collecting examples of products that had failed, and ended up opening a museum in Sweden in 2017. The Museum of Failure is now on a tour of the United States, kicking off just outside Minneapolis. The exhibit starts with failures in transportation.
We call it failure in motion.
Besides the Edsel, there's a Swedish warship from 1628 that was so unstable it sank just minutes after it first set sail… and a plastic bicycle designed by Volvo engineers that wobbled and even cracked when people rode it.
You're in the digital disaster area.
Digital disasters include Apple's hockey puck mouse that was hard to use, and a video chatting device made by Facebook. It wasn't a hit.
We have the Google Glass 2013. Put it on. Looking good.
OK. This feels a little awkward, I'm not going to lie.
It seemed revolutionary – a wearable computer that projects an image and takes pictures and video.
The main reason it failed was because of privacy issues.
Glass users could record others without them knowing.
We still deal with privacy issues today. But then I mean, this was like a shock. Google is fantastic at testing new things and they're not afraid of failing. It's pretty cool.
And we see how successful they are.
Speaking as a psychologist, where does this fear of failure come from, within us?
A lot of it comes from our early experiences of failure. I mean, you, you spill your glass of juice on the breakfast table. You don't get praised for that. There's also this fundamental sort of, part of failure, which is the social shame. There's some functionality to that – we don't want a society where everybody is failing all the time. The problem is when it comes to progress, when it comes to learning, innovation, those rules don't really apply.
How can humans learn to be less afraid of failure?
The best way to overcome it is to get used to it.
For West, the collection is about sending a serious message. But he admits some of it is pretty funny, like some of the food flops. Bottled water for pets… a curious Colgate-branded beef lasagna frozen dinner… baby food maker Gerber's food for adults meant to be eaten out of the jar… and the famous zero-calorie fat substitute, Olestra.
You can eat as much junk food as you wanted to without getting fat, right? Problem was, it caused diarrhea.
And then, in the category of 'What Were They Thinking?'
This is the UroClub.
There's a golf club that doubles as — well, just watch the commercial.
It looks like an ordinary golf club, but contains a reservoir built into the grip to relieve yourself. The UroClub comes with a towel and appears that you're just checking out your club.
Doesn't draw any attention to you at all. Isn't awkward at all.
No. And you're carrying this around with you then for the rest of the game.
Yes. The commercials – they don't really specify what you do with it later. And so, it was a serious product developed by a urologist who played golf. And then it became, sold more as a gag gift.
The exhibit ends with a wall where people can confess to their own failures. 11-year-old Zachary Thao wrote 'my grades' because he just got an F in art class.
I got the lowest grade of my whole entire everything.
Did you learn from that?
Yeah, just to turn in assignments more faster and quicker.
His twin brother Logan couldn't think of anything but says he appreciates failure, nonetheless.
I think failure is good because you can always work on that and improve it.
And that, says creator Samuel West, is the whole point.
When individuals come here and they see these brands fail, they feel liberated. Like if, if the big boys can fail, so can I. And I love that.
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Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
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