Most of us are familiar with a little blue-and-yellow can of spray in our garages or under the kitchen sink called WD-40. That is the trademarked name of a lubricating spray developed in 1953 by a Californian named Norm Larsen. It was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion, and later was found to have a variety of practical household uses. WD-40 stands for “Water Displacement – 40th Attempt.”

Fortieth attempt? Can’t you just hear Larsen’s wife, yelling down into his workshop, “Norm, forget it! You’ve tried more than 30 formulas – it’s not gonna work!”

Intolerant of mistakes
Has the aversion to failure in our society gone too far? We’ve become so intolerant of mistakes and errors that we go to enormous lengths to either hide them or pass them off as success in disguise. This cult of nothing-less-than-success may have serious economic consequences, too.

There’s a reason author Aritha Van Herk called many of Alberta’s early pioneers “mavericks.” They went against the herd mentality, took risks and accomplished great things – but a lot of failure accompanied these mavericks along the way, as well. The history of Alberta’s energy sector offers compelling examples of spectacular failures on the road to eventual success.

The now-famous Leduc No. 1 oil well, drilled in 1947, followed a string of dry holes. It was that well that triggered the conventional crude oil industry in the province.

Had the original prospectors given up on advice that there will probably be no big oil finds in the region, they never would have struck it rich in Leduc.

More recently, the oilsands offer the same lesson in perseverance. As far back as the 1960s and ’70s, researchers were busy trying to figure out an economical way to extract oil from the thick, tar-like sands in the Athabasca basin. For years it looked like the entire project might prove to be a complete waste of time and money, since no one seemed able to make it commercially viable. But eventually, with improved technology (and with help from rising energy prices), the oilsands paid off.

Today, Alberta’s energy sector is up against a new and formidable challenge: how to supply a world still hungry for energy, but in a way that is less damaging to the Earth on which we tread. There are all kinds of innovative, creative minds busy figuring out ways to do this, but there will certainly be many more ideas that don’t work than ones that do. Now more than ever we must be willing to try and fail. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a prime example of a new technology in its infancy, and one that probably has a lot of failure ahead of it on the road to proven success.

Many readers will wrongly conclude that I’m suggesting we should wallow in failure, accept mediocrity, and ask for government programs to prop up incompetence. But this is exactly the opposite of what is being proposed.

A tolerance for failure
Albertans may need a higher degree of failure tolerance as an unpleasant yet necessary means by which we succeed. This may be a hard principle to accept in a culture where failure is punished and success rewarded. But tolerating failure doesn’t end with the failed attempt. The failure needs to be accompanied by learning – why didn’t that attempt work? What did I learn that I can apply to my next attempt?

Ultimately, Alberta’s economic progress will rely on risk-taking. An entrepreneur has an idea, a scientist has a hunch, a designer has a vision. To act on any of these notions, someone needs to stick his neck out and take the chance, failure or not. But if the consequence of failure seem overly dire, it will crush the incentive for the risk-taker to try anything less than a sure bet. And the economy will suffer.

As Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake said, “Every project should be a little bit impossible. That is how we progress.” But those little bits of impossibility along the way will result in some failed attempts.

Failure should not be devastating. Taking a chance on a hunch should not be punished with a zero-tolerance approach to failure. We can’t sit and wallow in failure, but we can come to embrace failure for what it is – a necessary stepping stone to success.