What Teachers Can Learn About Failure From Elon Musk

By AJ Juliani, 5 comments

While John Spencer and I were developing the LAUNCH Cycle, we came up with a few areas that were likely stumbling blocks in the creative (design-thinking inspired) process. One of the keys to the Launch Cycle is taking the time to Look, Listen, and Learn throughout the entire process (that is the L in the LAUNCH acronym).

In talking with George Couros about the Launch Cycle we had a good conversation about when it was appropriate to share that learning. The quick answer: all the time. From start to finish you can be learning and sharing during the process. Whether it is students doing a Genius Hour Project, teachers creating their own PD, or school leaders implementing an initiative–the key is to be transparent with that learning process.

Here’s the problem: To be transparent and share your learning means to open yourself up to public failures.

This is true for all of us. It is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the creative process. And it’s not the failing. It’s the resiliency to get back up and keep trying. It’s the tenacity to continue attacking the problem and developing solutions. It’s the feeling that your work is not complete until you’ve made some sort of progress.

And I know what you are saying in your head right now, because I’m saying the same thing: It’s one thing to fail and bounce back myself or in a small group. It’s a completely different level to fail in front of what seems like the whole world and try to keep going in the creative process!

But, if we want to be great. If we want our students to be great. If we want our schools to be great. Failure, and sharing that failure, has to be a part of the process. It cannot be hidden. It cannot be swept under the rug. It cannot be forgotten.

I’m right there with you. I need to learn how to fail better, and bounce back stronger, and not be afraid to share it with the world. For me, it gets me inspired to hear and see others sharing epic failures with an audience. Enter my inspiration: Elon Musk.

Learning How to Fail From Elon Musk

One of the best lessons on sharing the entire Launch Cycle is happening right now. We are living in an amazing time, where every step of SpaceX’s program is being broadcasted, shared, and discussed in real-time. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, here’s the general gist (or you can read this 30,000-word article on it that I loved).

Elon Musk was a co-founder of PayPal where he made millions of dollars when the company sold to eBay. Instead of buying yachts and living off his riches, Musk decided on tackling three of the biggest problems he could think of: Dependence on fossil fuels, space travel, and solar energy. He formed three companies. Tesla is the car company that makes electric cars and battery gigafactories. SolarCity is the smallest company founded on bringing solar energy to the masses. And then there is SpaceX.

SpaceX has brought the Space Race back into the 21st century. Musk’s goal is to eventually have a SpaceX team travel to Mars. And he is not joking about this. They are hitting almost every milestone along the way. But the best part of this entire story, is that we get to watch it live. The ups and downs, wins and failures. It’s an awesome Design Thinking process happening right in front of our eyes.

In 2005 when he was starting out on this journey with SpaceX, Musk said the following:

elon-musk-failure-quote

Failure has been a huge part of SpaceX’s ethos since the beginning. In fact, they almost failed their way out of business.

2006: First launch—failure

2007: Second launch—failure

2008: Third launch—failure

They only had enough money and resources left for one more launch. It needed to be successful in order to get any type of funding.  As described in the post linked to above, here’s what happened:

A friend of Musk, Adeo Ressi, describes it like this: “Everything hinged on that launch … If it works, epic success. If it fails — if one thing goes differently and it fails — epic failure. No in between. No partial credit. He’d had three failures already. It would have been over. We’re talking Harvard Business School case study — rich guy who goes into the rocket business and loses it all.”

But on September 28, 2008, SpaceX set off the fourth launch—and nailed it. They put a dummy payload into orbit without a hitch, becoming only the second privately-funded company ever to do so.

Falcon 1 was also the most cost-efficient rocket ever to launch—priced at $7.9 million, it cost less than a third of the best US alternative at the time.

NASA took notice. The successful fourth launch was enough evidence for them that SpaceX was worth trusting, and at the end of 2008, NASA called Musk and told him they wanted to offer SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to make 12 deliveries for them to the ISS.

Notice, that all of these failures were very public. Livestreamed online. Written about in the mass media. Talked about among colleagues and employees at SpaceX.

Then notice something else: You probably didn’t know about any of this. One of the biggest lessons we can learn from Elon Musk about failing and bouncing back publicly is that even though you may share it with the world, it doesn’t have to be humiliating. Musk and SpaceX failed proudly. It meant they were taking risks. It meant they were pushing forward and trying to make a better world.

As teachers and leaders we can often feel defeated when we try something new, take a risk, and end up not getting the results we hoped for. Yet, if we share that journey we are inspiring others to take action themselves. We are showing the world that we aren’t “settling” for what we have, but are actively working for something better.

Musk on the Fundamental Problem with Taking Risks

SpaceX has continued to fail since that successful launch. But with each failure (and with each success) they grow stronger as a company who practices resiliency and promotes risk-taking. Their latest risk is trying to land a rocket (that goes into orbit) onto a landing pad in the middle of the ocean. They have successfully landed a rocket on land, but for bigger launches they need the flexibility of landing the rocket on a robot boat at sea.

So far they’ve had four attempts. All failures. Three were close, one not at all. Now as they go for their fifth attempt, articles like this one from Wired Magazine are popping up all over the internet: “Watch SpaceX Rocket (Probably) Crash Into a Robot Boat (Again).”

But for SpaceX this is how they function. Failure is a part of the process. Let’s take a look at the LAUNCH Cycle to see how they are sharing, taking risks, learning, and failing throughout this process.

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, SpaceX (including Musk) look at past experiences, listen to experts, and learn from each other about their next mission or launch. This isn’t always pretty or easy. It’s a lot of hard work to learn at a deep level, and you can miss things along the way.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Now filled with a general understanding, they ask questions and dive deeper into their mission. Why didn’t this work? Why did this system fail? Asking questions helps to get to the next step.

U: Understanding the Process and/or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through experiences. Here SpaceX is failing and learning through those failures. They are also sharing with their team so everyone can be informed and get a deeper level of understanding.

N: Navigate Ideas
The SpaceX team now applies that newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. This may be many prototypes. It could be a rocket, or a system for landing, or a way to use less fuel. Creation happens with failure often expected to be the initial result.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success. This is happening right now at SpaceX by launching four times and failing four times. They continue to highlight, tweak, and fix.

This is not easy when you are first starting to take risks. It may feel like the whole world is against you. It may feel like everyone thinks you are crazy. As a teacher or school leader you may be saying, “If I try something and fail, I’ll never be allowed to take a creative risk again.”

Musk dealt with similar sanctions and possibilities when he was starting SpaceX and trying to figure out how to deal with the regulators. Regulators controlled how many “risks” you could take and what the ramifications were if you failed and messed up along the way.

But in Musk’s mind, the problem was not with the regulators themselves, but the entire system put in place. He points this out in one particular quote:

There is a fundamental problem with regulators. If a regulator agrees to change a rule and something bad happens, they can easily lose their career. Whereas if they change a rule and something good happens, they don’t even get a reward. So, it’s very asymmetric. It’s then very easy to understand why regulators resist changing the rules. It’s because there’s a big punishment on one side and no reward on the other. How would any rational person behave in such a scenario?

The situation he’s talking about is loss aversion (here’s a great post on it). As Shane Parrish says, “it doesn’t stop at regulators, it extends into other areas as well. The same principle applies to most CEOs, managers, leaders, and teachers. If you want to predict behavior, take a close look at the incentives.”

Let’s change the wording in that paragraph for school leaders and teacher scenario:

There is a fundamental problem with teachers/leaders. If a teacher/leader agrees to change a rule and something bad happens, they can easily lose their career. Whereas if they change a rule and something good happens, they don’t even get a reward. So, it’s very asymmetric. It’s then very easy to understand why teachers/leaders resist changing the rules. It’s because there’s a big punishment on one side and no reward on the other. How would any rational teacher/leader behave in such a scenario?

Does this sound eerily familiar? It’s not necessarily any teacher or school leader or student’s fault for not taking risks. Often it’s based on the system that is in place. When a system actively punishes risk takers, there tends to be less of them. 

So, is that it? Should we give up, throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, I guess there is nothing we can do!”

Yes, that’s an option. It’s an option many of us take when we feel like we are beaten down, frustrated, and overwhelmed with the current reality of a system that punishes risks and failure. But, I believe there is another way to think about taking risks. One that provides a more hopeful outcome.

As Musk says, “If something is important enough, you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.”

How to Take Risks In A System Not Built For It

The first thing we can learn from Musk on taking risks is to not do it alone. Sure, Musk put all of his own money on the line, and started the companies by himself, but he has always built and consulted with a Team when taking a risk. Whether it was talking to every rocket scientist and NASA engineer he could find, or consulting with former aerospace experts, Musk decided to take a risk, then brought a team together to make it happen. This team may not be in your own school or space, they may be online and from around the world, but you need support to pull it off.

The second piece is making sure to Research and Plan to the best of your abilities. If you take a risk and “wing it”, chances are people won’t take you or your work seriously. However, if you have a plan backed by research and information, now your risk seems calculated and can be appreciated even if/when you may fail.

Third, and maybe most importantly is to Let the work be seen by others. People call Elon Musk the hardest working man in his field. They never question his work ethic. No risks that he or SpaceX take are seen to be based on doing things easy or cutting corners. They are share publicly and put on display to be measures of success and tell a story. When we heard about Musk or SpaceX we then see their failures as an integral part of their story and who they are, and why they have made it this far.

Finally, you have to be Honest about consequences. If you fail, and the risk doesn’t work, there are going to be consequences. Every time we take a step in one direction it’s preventing us to take steps down other paths. Be open with your team and colleagues and students about the consequences of taking a risks. However, failing doesn’t always bring with it negative consequences. Some of the best learning experiences happen when we fail. Much of the learning comes from the process, not the end result.

Margie Warrell, the author of Stop Playing Safe, has listed these questions as a place to start when we begin to decide whether or not to take a leap of faith and try something new:

  • Do I keep doing what’s always been done, or challenge old assumptions and try new approaches to problems?
  • Do I proactively seek new challenges or just manage those I already have?
  • Do I risk being exposed and vulnerable, or act to protect my pride and patch of power?  
  • Do I ask for what I really want, or just for what I think others want to give me?
  • Do I ‘toot my horn’ to ensure others know what I’m capable of, or just hope my efforts will be noticed?
  • Do I speak my mind or bite my lip, lest I ruffle feathers or subject myself to criticism?

Ultimately, we can learn a lot from the experiences (and failures) from people like Elon Musk. Yet, it comes down to our beliefs, and whether we truly think something is important enough to take a risk and possibly end up failing.

For me, I know that celebrating failure is hard to do. And maybe we shouldn’t celebrate the failure, but instead celebrate the act of taking a risk and bouncing back regardless of the outcome.

Here’s to trying new things, being passionate about your work, and taking risks in the future that will benefit all our students in the present and in the future.

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