The joy of failure


Someone once said, “Failure isn’t falling down—it’s staying down!” One man who knew how to deal with failure was Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison invented the microphone, the phonograph, the incandescent light, the storage battery, talking movies, and more than 1000 other items.

It was December 1914, and he had worked for 10 years on a storage battery. This had greatly strained his finances. This particular evening spontaneous combustion had broken out in the film room. Within minutes all the packing compounds, celluloid for records and film, and other flammable goods were in flames. Fire companies from eight surrounding towns arrived, but the heat was so intense and the water pressure so low that the attempt to douse the flames was futile. Everything was destroyed. Edison was 67.

There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.

With all his assets going up in smoke (although the damage exceeded $2 million, the buildings were only insured for $238,000 because they were made of concrete and thought to be fireproof), would his spirit be broken?

The inventor’s 24-year-old son, Charles, searched frantically for his father. He finally found him, calmly watching the fire, his face glowing in the reflection, his white hair blowing in the wind. “My heart ached for him,” said Charles. “He was 67—no longer a young man—and everything was going up in flames. When he saw me, he shouted, ‘Charles, where’s your mother?’ When I told him I didn’t know, he said, ‘Find her. Bring her here. She will never see anything like this as long as she lives.'” The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to deliver the first phonograph.1  

Edison once said, “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.” We need to learn to “get up and get on” when we think we have failed. It’s about finding courage and resilience and the desire to keep looking up—keep looking forward.

Abraham Lincoln challenges us with this statement: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Jesus said, “I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day . . . ” (Luke 13:33). Paul said, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12), and again, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

May we sense God’s gift of courage and resilience in our minds and hearts today.

1. Charles R Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, Thomas Nelson, 1978, p 82-3, and Bits & Pieces, November, 1989, p 12.