The Rational Basis® of Happiness Podcast

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How can failure contribute to happiness - A short interview with Dr. Eric Daniels.
















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Male 1:             This boy is at a fragile point right now.

Male 2:             I do understand. He is at a fragile point. He’s got problems.

Male 1:             What problems does he have?

Male 2:             He pushes people away before they have a chance to leave him. It’s a defense mechanism, all right? And for 20 years he’s been alone because of that. If you push him right now, it’s going to be the same thing all over again and I’m not going to let that happen to him.

Male 1:             Don’t you do that, Sean.

Male 2:             What?

Male 1:             Don’t you do that. Don’t infect him with the idea that it’s okay to quit, that it’s okay to be a failure, because it’s not okay Sean.


Dr. Kenner:      How can failure contribute to your own happiness? That sounds like a contradiction on the face of it. With me today to discuss this is Dr. Eric Daniels. He has his PhD in American History from the University of Wisconsin. He’s taught at the University of Wisconsin and he is currently a professor at Duke University in the program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace. Dr. Eric Daniels is currently working on a book discussing how moral ideas – moral ideas – have shaped the course of American political life. His tapes and books are available on my website. He’s written A History of American Moral Thought and The Inventive Age in American History. Welcome to the show Dr. Daniels. 


Dr. Daniels:     Thank you. It’s good to be here.


Dr. Kenner:      It’s a pleasure to have you on. When we think about failure, many of us give up at the first signs of failure. We’ll try to get a job and we get turned down and we conclude, oh well, what’s the use? Nothing ever works out right. Or I can’t do anything right. And we give up. Or we try a new project or a new hobby and we’re a failure at the beginning. Tell us about some of Thomas Edison’s failures and how he turned them into a benefit for himself? How they contributed to his happiness? 


Dr. Daniels:     Well, it’s the same thing. Thomas Edison, over the years, made so many miraculous inventions that we tend to associate him with success. But actually, if we could analyze the number of experiments – and I’m sure any historian that want so to go back and look through Edison’s various experiments – will notice that Edison did a lot of things that just didn’t work. Over the course of his life, he made many, many trials, and he came up with things that just didn’t work. There’s even a famous story, when Edison had become more established and he had his own laboratory where he employed engineers and mathematicians and others to work for him, and Edison had gone through a number of trials on a particular experiment. The guy that was working with him said, “We don’t know anything!” And Edison looked at him and he said, “What do you mean? We know 837 things that don’t work.” 


Dr. Kenner:      This was with what?


Dr. Daniels:     I think this was when he was developing the power system for the light bulb.


Dr. Kenner:      Was it the filament?


Dr. Daniels:     The filament for the light bulb is another great example. Edison, he had developed the principles of how electric light would work. He had made the significant scientific advances that allowed him to see what the basis for electric light bulbs would be, but he couldn’t yet find the right fabric or the right type of material to use as the filament that are in our light bulbs today. So Edison decided, this is the last step. He tried something. He tried the two or three obvious things that any scientist would have tried and they failed. And a lot of people might have given up at this point. A lot of people might have said, well, maybe we weren’t made to make light. After all, Edison was really striking out in a new direction, scientifically, with his theory about electric light. He might have given up. But instead he said, no, I’m confident that what I’m doing is the right thing, I just need to find the right materials. And so he had his engineers and others gather all kinds of materials. Anything they could think of. And he would roll these into filaments and they would try them. Again and again and again and again. Literally almost I think something like 500 or 600 different materials were used. 


Dr. Kenner:      I’ve been to two of his labs and I just think he’s incredible. He had animal parts from all over the world.


Dr. Daniels:     And he’s got plants from all over the world and you can still visit there today, it’s a facility in Orange, N.J.


Dr. Kenner:      I think in Tampa too.


Dr. Daniels:     It’s just a vast warehouse of materials. Even beyond the light bulb, with his other inventions, he always knew that some stuff, some part of reality, some thing out there, might be what I need. So I need to collect stuff so that when I’m doing experiments. I won’t let failures get me down. I’ll always have more resources. I’ll always have more tries. I’ll always have more opportunities to make a success out of this.


Dr. Kenner:      Instead of saying, “Let’s go back to the candle.”


Dr. Daniels:     Primarily I think it’s because he believed in his own thinking methods. He had confidence in his mind. He didn’t give up. He didn’t have that attitude. I’m not even sure Edison really considered that anything he ever did was a failure, even though we might call it that. We might say, “He failed at this. He failed at that.” It may not actually be in his mind a failure. It was always just more data for his mind to process. It was another thing that didn’t work. So he filed that in his mind – this doesn’t work for this application. That’s knowledge.


Dr. Kenner:      What do you do when other people say, “Come on Edison. Give up. Tom, haven’t you tried enough stuff? You’re wasting your time. This is ridiculous. You’re stupid.” How did he deal with other people haggling him?


Dr. Daniels:     One of the things that Edison, from very early on when he was working on inventions on the telegraph, he simply refused to accept any kind of accepted dogma about the way things worked. He said, “Look, my knowledge comes from my interaction with the world. And I have confidence in that. I have a belief that what I can do will have efficacy, that it’ll have good effects.” And he had some examples in his life. There were things in his life that he had done and thought through that worked, and he said, “Look, I can achieve these things. I can do something good. I have the confidence that I’ll be able to do that again in the future, no matter what anyone says.” Because throughout his life, people tried to tell him that he was wrong on scientific grounds, on moral grounds, on all kinds of different issues. But he never listened to them. He always believed in himself and he believed that he always had the capacity in the future to repeat these successes that he’d had in the past. He didn’t focus on the failures or other people’s perceptions.


Dr. Kenner:      I think that’s what Ayn Rand calls being a first-hander. Not a second-hander, always worried about what other people think about you, but using your own mind well and relying on your own judgment.


Dr. Daniels:     Indeed.


Dr. Kenner:      In terms of dealing with failure, what are one or two things that we can learn from Edison’s approach to improve our own lives?


Dr. Daniels:     I think one of the things that I mentioned was how we mentally, what do we think of are attempts that don’t success? How do we think of them? That’s an important difference between successful inventors and unsuccessful people who are mired in failure. He didn’t think of them as failures. He didn’t simply wipe them off the slate. He didn’t say, “This is useless.” He didn’t say to himself, “What I just did is useless.” He said to himself, “What I just did was another step along the road to success.” And he conceptualized his failures as steps on the road to success. For us, for applying these ideas to our lives, even if what we do doesn’t succeed, if we try something – try to get a job, try to do something else – the attitude that we need to have is there’s always something we can learn from our failures.


Dr. Kenner:      So even if you had a bad marriage and it broke up or a bad relationship with someone, you can learn from it, rather than self-destruct?


Dr. Daniels:     Sure. Rather than saying, “I’m no good. I don’t know how to make the right decisions in my life. I didn’t pick the right wife or husband,” you say to yourself, “This allows me to gain more knowledge about myself and about what I need in my relationships or what I need in a job,” or whatever the area of your life it is.


Dr. Kenner:      Or what I did wrong that I can improve.


Dr. Daniels:     And it’s not a focus on the negative consequences, it’s the focus on positive aspects. Really, these are positive things. As painful as they might be in the short term, they give us more knowledge.


Dr. Kenner:      I want to thank you so much for joining us today and talking about how failure is not an obstacle to happiness but can actually contribute to your long-range happiness. Thank you so much for joining us today. Hope you’re able to use this to achieve success in your life. See you again next week on The Rational Basis of Happiness.