For Samuel West, failure is not something to be shunned but celebrated – a critical part of innovation.
That’s part of why he created the Museum of Failure, a touring exhibit that features dozens of embarrassing business and product failures, including a long line of obsolete tech gadgets (Betamax video cassettes, audio minidiscs), video games that bombed and culinary oddities such as Colgate lasagna and Crystal Pepsi.
The museum is on display at Calgary’s Southcentre Mall until the end of August.
Dr. West, the museum’s curator, explains why he created the museum and what he hopes visitors take from it.
Tell me a little about yourself and how this museum came about.
I’m a half-Icelandic, half-American with a PhD in organizational psychology who currently lives in Sweden. My work focuses on how companies can increase their level of innovation, and one of the things that has come up frequently is the idea that if companies want people to be innovative, they need to stop punishing failure and instead encourage employees to take meaningful risks.
At first, I talked about this idea through books and talks and stuff like scholarly articles, but nobody read them. Then, a few years ago, I was on holiday with my wife and kids down in Zagreb, Croatia, and I stumbled into a museum called the Museum of Broken Relationships.
After visiting, I thought that if they could do a museum about an abstract concept like that and make it awesome, then I could do a museum about failure, and I really had no idea what I was doing, so it’s been lots of fun.
How would you describe the Museum of Failure to somebody who had no idea what it was about?
The museum is a collection of failed innovations from around the world that span different sectors of business. We have medical stuff, like a vintage vibrator to cure hysteria. The vibrator itself works, but the failure is an ideological failure in what it was designed to do. We have automobiles, like a Honda motorcycle that was designed for people who don’t like motorcycles, so it failed on that premise alone. We also have games, like Cyberpunk 2077 and No Man’s Sky, which were both incredibly hyped before they came out and failed disastrously when they released.
The aim of the museum is really to help both individuals and companies understand that we need to accept these failures. I mean, we can’t just have the successes, you have to accept the bad stuff as well. Sometimes those are expensive, embarrassing failures. And that’s how progress works.
Did you factor your own perceived failures into this project when making it?
I mean, if you fail because you’re a sloppy, incompetent person or you just don’t care, then that’s not a type of failure that I want to celebrate or put up on a pedestal. But if you fail because you tried something and it didn’t work as well as you’d have liked, good for you. You are testing something new. Those types of failures are good failures. I’m almost 50, so I’ve got a billion failures. I breathe failure on a daily basis. Some of them I’m proud of and are funny, while others I’m just terribly embarrassed about.
Your perspective on the public perception of failure is interesting because there are many famous people who are hailed as geniuses that have had many private failures. Do you think the modern culture of hustle and entrepreneurship contributes to failure anxiety?
Yeah, definitely. If you go back in history, we glorify the Thomas Edisons and Elon Musks. Eccentric, bigger-than-life personalities, who, for the most part, are absolute narcissists. There’s something so mysterious about the inventor type, the rogue innovator, that’s very appealing to people. In the periphery of innovation, there’s oftentimes a successful entrepreneur who will stand up on stage and say, “It’s important to fail,” yet they’re doing it from a position of success. Like, it’s easy for them to say that now, but if you’re in the middle of failure number 10 or whatever, that’s not glorified. There’s a paradox that it’s okay to talk about failure if you’re successful, but it’s not okay to talk about failure if you’re still in the thick of it.
Do you have a favourite exhibit?
I like one with a good story, like the Amstrad e-mailer. In the early 2000s, Amstrad was the biggest tech company in the U.K., owned by a superstar inventor named Sir Alan Sugar, who’s now on the British version of Shark Tank. He was absolutely obsessed with this machine, which looks like a fax machine with a screen on it. It was not a sexy product. All it could do was e-mail and because it used their servers, you’d have to pay per minute to check your e-mail. You couldn’t open image files. You could only send and receive text emails on it.
This thing was absolutely worthless from day one, but this inventor that everybody looked up to, this visionary, was obsessed with it. Despite everyone’s recommendation that he kill the product, he kept it alive, and it ultimately destroyed the company. We look up to these inventors and business people because they’re so successful, but they’re not always right. It’s stories like this that are fascinating to me because I think: What went wrong? Was it hubris? Was it bad judgment? Was it bad timing? Why did it fail?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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