Let us now celebrate the losers

We owe a debt to failures, to those creative ideas that flamed out or gloriously flopped

Getty Images/ iStock/ Illustration by Taylor Shute

As humans, we come up with a lot of ideas. Most of them are terrible. Just ask the people who listen to pitches all day, like venture capitalists or bigwigs who run movie studios. Or any of the countless people throughout history who have come up with the idea of marrying Larry King.

But we keep devising new ideas because we want to progress as a civilization and achieve our potential, and also because we’re tired of vacuuming and couldn’t maybe a robot do that?
The result is an era of relentless innovation. New products seem to appear every day—and many of these gadgets are terrific. For instance, recent advances in smartphone technology have in just a few short years rendered obsolete a number of antiquated relics, such as the Yellow Pages and basic human courtesy.

But it is not just the successful innovators who deserve our esteem, our applause and—in the case of whoever “innovated” the Jimmy Dean Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick—our warm, tender embrace. We also owe a debt to the failures—to those whose ideas flame out or flop. Why pay tribute to those who come up short? Three good reasons:
1. Failed innovation is a real pick-me-up for the rest of us. What’s that you say? People richer and smarter than myself have brought forth a grand idea that has been rejected by the marketplace, rendering them utterly humiliated? That means I’ve become more successful by doing NOTHING. Advantage, lethargy.

The introduction of New Coke in 1985 is a perfect example. It was hard not to feel good about yourself in the days after its launch. If you’d botched a project at work or flunked an assignment at school or even if you’d starred in St. Elmo’s Fire, you could walk home with a spring in your step knowing that you hadn’t exposed a legendary soda company to global ridicule. So you had that going for you.

Or think about the Segway. Before it was unveiled in 2001, there was tremendous hype—with entrepreneurial gurus from Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezos raving about how the device was going to Jetsonize the whole of human transportation. And then we got a glimpse of the Segway, and it was big, and it was expensive, and it didn’t even shoot laser beams—so we mocked it. And that felt sooo good. For many of us, it was an exercise in influence we don’t often get to experience—a full-on snubbing of what the high-tech elite had ordained as the Next Big Thing. It was exhilarating. Yes, we’re a shallow, materialistic culture that will buy almost anything—but we won’t buy that.

Almost a decade later, the Segway’s only legacy of innovation has been proving that there is something big-city police officers can look more ridiculous on than a bicycle.

2. Failed innovation teaches us something about ourselves. Remember Olestra? It was marketed during the ’90s as a fat substitute by Procter & Gamble, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing it. They put the stuff into snack foods like corn chips. And on the labels of these foods they put a small warning—a warning you barely needed to concern yourself with. It was no big deal at all. Just that the Olestra might make you poop yourself.

Curiously, the warnings themselves did not immediately prevent people from buying foods made with Olestra. But then came many tales of abdominal pain and—more memorably—untimely pooping.

The failure of Olestra taught us something. Were we willing to try fat-free products? Sure. Were we willing to try fat-free products that might make us poop ourselves? No, we were not. Now future innovators don’t have to wonder if we’ll buy something that will make us poop ourselves. They’ll know we won’t. That’s useful information!

3. Failure gives innovators a second chance to get it right. A product almost identical to Olestra is now in widespread use as a machine lubricant. Seriously. The spirit of innovation triumphs again! Now if the makers could only get my circular saw to stop pooping itself.

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