The importance of failure (and a little about Elon Musk)

Last week I received an email from one of my favorite blogs directing me to a post titled “What Teachers Can Learn About Failure From Elon Musk” (you can click on the link if you’d like to see the original post).  The gist of the post is that as teachers and learners, we have to fail, and be willing to share those failures, as part of the learning process.  I thought of the saying “Fail Forward” as I read one of the early paragraphs.

elon-muskThe post then talked a lot about Elon Musk.  This is a guy I had heard of – I’ve seen his TED Talk, Tesla makes some pretty cool cars, and as a self described nerd, I have watched multiple SpaceX launches and attempts at landing with interest.  So as I was reading about Musk, I was curious to be directed to a series of posts about Elon Musk from the blog Wait But Why (Check it out here: Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man).  After going deep into some background on the history of fossil fuels, automotives, space travel, and a few other topics, I also walked away with a newfound interest in Elon Musk, as well as an understanding of why Tim Urban, the author of Wait But Why, describes Musk as such a rad dude.

As a college student what were you thinking about?  When Musk was in college, he asked himself “What will most affect the future of humanity?”  His list contained 5 things: “The internet; sustainable energy; space exploration with a goal of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code.”  I can tell you that as a college student, this is most certainly not what I was thinking about!

Whatever skeptics have said can't be done, Elon has gone out and made it real. Remember in the 1990s, when we would call strangers and give them our credit-card numbers- Elon dreamed upSo here’s a brief rundown of Musk’s career:

1995 – starts Zip2 – think Yelp and Google Maps in a pre-smartphone era – in 1999 at the age of 27 Zip2 sells for $307 million, and Musk’s take was $22 million.

1999 – Musk takes three quarters of his personal net worth to start – an online bank (before those really existed). merged with Confinity to create a money-transfer service that we now know of as PayPal.

2000 – Musk is replaced as CEO of PayPal, but stays on the team in a senior role.

2002 – eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion, and Musk walked away this time with $180 million.  He was 34 years old.

Also in 2002 – Musk begins researching rocket technology and after the finalization of the sale of PayPal, he invests $100 million of his own money in a rocket company called SpaceX.  The stated goal of the company was to revolutionize the cost of space travel in order to make humans a multi-planetary species by colonizing Mars with at least a million people over the next century.

SpaceX Logo

Let that sink in for a minute…  In the span of 7 years he went from dropping out of a Stanford PhD program to starting SpaceX.

And he wasn’t done yet…


2004 – still in the middle of the SpaceX experiment, Musk personally invested $70 million into an electric car company called Tesla.  The last successful US car startup was Chrysler in 1925.

2006 – invests $10 million to found another company – SolarCity with the goal of revolutionizing energy production by creating a large distributed utility that would install solar panel systems on millions of people’s homes and reducing their consumption of fossil fuel generated electricity. Because, I mean, what else did he have to do?!!

Side note: As I was reading through this, especially in reading about what Musk has done since 2002, I couldn’t help thinking of someone winning the PowerBall and deciding that they are going to use their money to feed the people of Africa, only to go bankrupt before they send anything across the Atlantic!  I wonder what I would have done if I was in his shoes when PayPal sold to eBay – it would be so tempting to take that money and go live on a tropical island for the rest of my days!

So, what does this have to do with failing forward you might ask.  Looking over the list of accomplishments above, it might be hard to find the failure.  During a 2005 interview with Fast Company, Musk was quoted as saying “Failure is an option here.  If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”  He was speaking about the culture of business at SpaceX.

Let’s look at some of the failures in his time at SpaceX:

I'll admit - this isn't a picture of one of the failed launches, but look at it! How cool is that???
I’ll admit – this isn’t a picture of one of the failed launches, but look at it! How cool is that???

2006: First launch – failure

2007: Second launch – failure

2008: Third launch – failure

At this point, it was easy to have doubts in the likelihood of success for SpaceX.  They had yet to prove that they had the ability to be successful.  And yet, those who worked at SpaceX, Musk included, were supremely confident.  With each of the failures, that had been livestreamed to the world, the company had learned and made improvements.  The engineers and scientists at SpaceX would go back to the drawing board and try to improve.

In the fall of 2008 SpaceX only had enough money to try one more launch.  Failure here would mean failure to the entire company.  But on the fourth launch they achieved complete success.  With it came new funding in the form of funds from NASA to make multiple deliveries to the International Space Station.  So what does this have to do with education?

In reading about SpaceX, Tesla, and other companies that Musk has been involved in, the key to their success is the feedback that the company seeks from it’s failure.  They are working in fields where there has been little to no success, so there isn’t a blueprint of how to succeed.  Failure is part of the process, whether they are building a rocket, a car, a battery for the car, or some other component in the process.

We can all agree that failure is an important part of the learning process.  But for it to be a learning experience, failure can’t be the end point for our students.  We can’t just put a failing grade in the grade book and move on.  Instead we mark that section at ‘needs improvement’ and we get back to work through meaningful feedback.  At SpaceX and Tesla, that feedback is an important part of the process to innovate.

Check out this video of a launch in June of this year.  It will pick up about 10 seconds before launch.  If you watch until about 2 minutes after lift-off, you’ll see the result:

As you can see, SpaceX still has failure.  But those failures continue to result in innovation!

We need to be providing that same type of feedback for our students.  There should be a two-way feedback loop between a teacher and student.  You have to provide your students feedback on the work that they are submitting.  It must be specific and lead to action that your students can take in their learning.  At the same time, your students have to be able to provide you feedback about their learning.  They need opportunities to make choices – in what they are learning, how they are learning it, how they are showing their learning.

Students can feel defeated when they try something new and things don’t go as they hope.  We have to continue to help them to understand that the journey is just as important, if not more so, than the end point.  We all learn from our failures, and getting up and trying it again shows that we are truly working for something better.

And just to show that success in one place doesn’t mean an endpoint, it’s important to think about what Musk and SpaceX are up to now.  They’ve shown they can successfully launch a rocket a get a payload to the ISS, but now they are trying to learn how to land a rocket that has just been in orbit onto a landing pad in the ocean.  Because, duh!  Why not???

There is no such thing as a quantum leap. There is only dogged persistence - and in the end you make it look like a quantum leap.So far, no success.  All four attempts have been failures.  But think back to Musk’s earlier quote – failure is an option.  I’m guessing that before too long, we’ll see a successful landing by SpaceX on a launch pad in the middle of the ocean.  When you see that landing, remember that it didn’t just happen.  It took tons of man-hours to get the feedback necessary to learn and adapt.  In the same way, our students need our feedback in order to continue to learn and grow.

Think back to a time that you learned something from a failure.  What steps did you take to improve?  Did you eventually find success?  Share with us in the comments below.  Or share your own example of a person who has show you what it means to “fail forward.”

2 thoughts on “The importance of failure (and a little about Elon Musk)

  1. Failure, although it feels terrible at the time, is one of the best ways to learn what true perseverance feels like. I remember failing at an interview for a camp counselor position that I REALLY wanted one summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. It was devastating! But I worked hard to find out what went wrong and how I could improve so that next year I could interview and get the position! I just had a talk the other day with a student who was bummed out that he received a 75% on a science quiz. He didn’t like that I took off points for generic answers on the open ended questions. I pointed him back to the detailed discussion we had as a class the day before on these same topics and we talked about what he could have done to show me he knew more when answering those questions. I can only hope that the feeling of “oh no–I didn’t do well” will spur kids on to want to improve and do better next time when given the support they need during those times of failure.


  2. When I first did Mystery Skype with my class we had some major failures. These were mostly failures due to Wifi and things out of my control; however they were failures. Thanks to connecting with other teachers and administration, I was able to figure out other avenues to help improve our next Mystery Skype experience! I wanted to quit when I first failed, but knew how disappointed my students would be. I am so glad we didn’t quit and found a better avenue!


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