Reaching Success….One Failure at a Time

Claire Klieger, Senior Associate Director

Success stories like those of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg are all around us. Students dream about creating the next revolutionary product like the iphone or the industry-changing company like Amazon. What we talk about a lot less often are the many missteps that frequently come before someone’s big break. These setbacks deserve their day in the sun, not only because they are a normal part of life (we can’t win at everything all of the time, afterall!), but more importantly, because of all that we learn from them.

As seen in a recent Washington Post article, a new “Failure Museum” in Sweden has taken this message to heart with exhibits featuring some of the most famous brands’ biggest product flops: Heinz’ “green ketchup,” Pepsi’s crystal clear soda and the Harley Davidson perfume, to name a few! Far more than a quirky tourist attraction, this museum offers the opportunity to really teach patrons a valuable lesson: that behind every great success is often a series of mistakes. In fact, some of the most successful products of their day were initially meant to be something else. Far from being developed as a new children’s toy, what we know as Silly Putty was created by an Engineer in the hopes of developing a form of synthetic rubber. Bubble wrap was first marketed as the latest craze in textured wall paper! What made these products ultimately successful was not the product itself, but the ability to adapt the failed product for a new purpose. In other words, to see the potential, switch gears, and be flexible (and courageous) enough to move in a completely new direction.

In the Ivy League world of Penn, there is so much pressure on students to be successful that so many people seem afraid to make a mistake, let alone talk about them. Ultimately, this unwillingness to take risks, adapt, and forge a new path may be preventing success. Increasingly, employers with whom we meet stress the value of being able to overcome obstacles. One of the reasons that “Tell me about a time when you failed at something” is such a popular interview question is because employers genuinely want to know how you deal with difficult situations and, most importantly, what you learned from them. So, my biggest piece of advice to students this summer is to embrace the missteps. I am a firm believer that they are often a key ingredient to the sweetest success!

Author: Claire Klieger

Claire Klieger is an Associate Director of Career Services for College of Arts & Sciences undergraduates. She earned her Ed.D. from Penn and did her undergraduate work at the University of Virginia. Fun Fact: Claire spent 11 years in the Middle East and North Africa.