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Origineur podcast, Loretta Milan, Lessons in failure from SpaceX

Episode 005: What SpaceX teaches us about failure

A surprising reaction to failure

We’ve all experienced failure at some point in our lives. 

Some of the most successful people and businesses in the world have failed too, sometimes spectacularly. The critical thing that sets them apart, though, is how they both perceive failure and how they respond.

SpaceX – the US company that manufactures spacecraft, launchers and satellite communications – is a pioneer and no stranger to being in the headlines. As famous for its ambitions for enabling us to live on Mars as being founded by the divisive Elon Musk, SpaceX has achieved many firsts.

It was the first private company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft. The first to achieve vertical propulsive landing of an orbital rocket booster and the first to reuse this kind of booster. And, the firsts don’t end there. 

Recently, the company was in the headlines again as excitement built in the run up to its second attempt at the first integrated flight test from Starbase in Texas. Getting ready for orbital launch was its spacecraft and super heavy booster known as Starship.

However, less than an hour later, news stations around the world were reporting on the company’s failure as remnants of the exploded Starship rained down from the sky.

The response at SpaceX HQ, though, was very different. 

There were cheers and applause in the room.

Why was that and what are the important lessons this teaches us about failure?

Six lessons in failure

SpaceX’s latest flight test demonstrates six transformational lessons in failure. If you’d like to first see the moment unfold, the flight test film is at the end of this article.

  1. Ambition requires risk

Not every goal requires a dare-devil spirit, but, to make anything new happen, to make progress, there is always a leap into the unknown. There is always risk. 

  1. Innovation requires failure

In school, we’re often taught that mistakes are bad. You got the wrong answer. Came to the wrong conclusion. Failed the test. Didn’t get the grade.

This perception often then bleeds its way into business. Some try to avoid failure at all costs. They build a culture where failure is feared. To fail is to face shame and ridicule. Look at how some of the news stations responded to SpaceX’s latest launch – with humiliation.

Yet, if the company didn’t risk failure, it would never take great strides in innovation, it would never get to celebrate so many firsts.

The hard truth is that if you’re not risking failure, you may not be stretching yourself to your full potential.

True failure is not trying.

  1. Failure is learning

Failure is life’s greatest teacher. There’s a reason why we say “you learn more from your mistakes than your failures”.

The key thing to note here is that any failure you make is a result of your actions. It is not your identity. When you fail, you are not a failure. You are not a bad person or not good enough. Things just didn’t work this time and are offering you lessons.

As inventor, Thomas Edison once said about the failures he had on the way to his successes: “I have not failed 10,000 times — I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

In short, he’d learned 10,000 lessons.

Business that punish failure so badly, risk never learning. People will never take the leap to try and make a big idea happen. They’ll be afraid to try something different. And, when failure does happen, everyone will be quick to pass blame in order to save face, rather than getting together to learn so it can be done better next time.

Failure only works if you learn.

  1. Perfection can be procrastination

To avoid the risk of failure, some companies strive to get their products or services perfectly developed. They iron out every potential flaw, shine it to perfection, before showing the world.

That’s admirable and – in some situations it’s vital. Say, for example, you’re developing a new vaccine. SpaceX though is proud that its ‘path of progress’ is iterative.

The company takes the safety precautions it needs to and progress happens in increments. SpaceX tests early and tests often. Improvements are continuously made though regular learning and adjustments.

And, making this public creates interest, excitement, support and transparency. It’s an opportunity to re-enforce the mission and keep people on board.

This is important because the greatest risk of holding out for perfection is that you’ll get all the way to your goal and no one will be interested in it at all.

  1. Failure does not mean you’re returning to square one

Some failures can feel like the end of the world. A business proposition didn’t work out. You didn’t make the promotion. A product didn’t sell.

After it’s happened, you may feel as if you have to start all over. It can feel frustrating. Demoralising, even.

But, as long as you learn, you are not starting from square one. You’re stepping forward with an important lesson guiding you.

You’re wiser than you’ve ever been.

  1. Perspective matters

When setting out to make a big leap, one that risks failure, it’s important to have perspective in the form of a clear goal.

During the live coverage as Starship was being prepared for lift off, Kate Tice, Quality Systems Engineering Manager at SpaceX, made an important point: “Success today is anything that we learn that helps improve future builds of Starship…Everything after clearing the tower is icing on the cake.”

Note that the objective wasn’t to get to Mars and populate the plant in one step. It was simply…to clear the tower.

And, this is why the SpaceX team, following an initial disappointed ‘awww’, cheered as flames burned in the sky. They had achieved their goal. They’d cleared the tower. Not only that, this Starship climbed the highest of any to date.

Now the pioneering SpaceX team are one giant leap closer to their vision.

Think beyond the possible

What is the big goal you’re setting for yourself or your business?

What feels like it’s currently beyond today’s ‘possible’ and would inspire you to stretch yourself in amazing ways?

What do you need to learn to get there? What risks do you need to take? How can you prepare well for this? And, how can you use failure for positive learning? 

It’s natural to have difficult or mixed feelings when failure happens. Not every failure warrants a cheer. Sometimes it would be wrong or inappropriate.

Let yourself feel and express what you need to. Apologise if there has been an impact on someone else. Fix what needs to be fixed.

But then, come together, learn together and move on up together.

Because that’s how we build a bright future.

Key takeaways

  1. Failure is part of the course of life. It can happen when you stretch yourself and do something meaningful. Failure is a result. It’s feedback. But, it’s not who you are. You can never be a failure, only a learner.
  2. Businesses that succeed at innovation build a culture where failure is seen as an opportunity to learn together rather than to blame. This culture is necessary to encourage people to stretch and make bold progress.
  3. Perspective is critical when it comes to failure. Be clear on your goal and what truly matters. Celebrate your learning.

Watch the moment unfold...

Be inspired by SpaceX’s flight test by watching the moment as it happened live. You’ll want to skip to around 5 minutes when everything gets started…

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