The author’s patented wrenchsquare, which you will not find on store shelves.
Craig Cottongim The author’s patented wrenchsquare, which you will not find on store shelves.

We all experience failure, but few people like to face it. Who wants to ever admit failure?

One of my most painful failures came from getting a patent on a tool that we were never able to get manufactured or marketed. I got the idea when I was changing the blade on a worm drive Skilsaw. I was tired of looking all over the jobsite for a wrench when it was time to change the blade. But every time I used a Skilsaw, I had a speedsquare on me. So it made sense to build an arbor wrench into the speedsquare, or so I thought. And so did the U.S. Patent office. Have you seen my wrenchsquare on the store shelf? Neither have I. The bitter taste of failure lingers, even after the patent expired, but now it’s bittersweet.

The lessons I’ve learned about failures might apply to you as well. But first, if you’re not occasionally making a few mistakes, you probably are not doing enough. I was shocked when a ready-mix truck driver told me recently he had to have his front-discharge mixer pulled out at least once a week. He expects to get stuck all the time. I was surprised he gets stuck that often with the truck’s live front axle, and I was shocked at how comfortable he was with burying his wheels weekly. “That’s part of it,” he told me. “We have to take chances; it’s no big deal.” I wonder if that’s what his dispatcher thinks.

Taking risks

The more comfortable we are with making mistakes, the more likely we are to take risks that pay off. Think of any innovation in concrete and you know there was plenty of trial and error along the way. Mistakes and failures are painful, but they stretch us and teach us a lesson.

After getting a patent, I learned that I’m not a marketing genius. A firm we hired to market our tool knew patent law but didn’t have a clue about marketing. Once I realized I hired the wrong people (who just wanted their names on my patent) I was too busy to manage the project once we got the ball rolling. But thankfully, I learned that my good ideas still help me adapt on the jobsite, and when I’m out of my area of expertise I shouldn’t expect willpower, personal desire, or magical thinking to carry the day. I learned that a major failure (unprofitable patents are time-consuming and expensive) didn’t mean I was washed up; it meant I needed to act on my strengths.

Our economy is slowly crawling back from the recession, but a lot of contractors didn’t survive. The mistakes of buying equipment you couldn’t afford, cutting back too much on manpower, or bidding too low to stay competitive may have led to failure the last few years. But your failure doesn’t define you. Rather, failure refines you. After tightening your belt, cutting the fat, and sharpening your pencil, you are leaner, stronger, and smarter.

Failures are not fatal; they help make us better when we don’t hide from them. Honestly reflect on each of your setbacks and accept the responsibility for your failures without blaming other people. You will learn what you can do with your talents and understand areas you should avoid, and you’ll be able to wisely explore areas where you can grow. A slab I lost during one of my failures in my 20s taught me humility, which is priceless.

Craig Cottongim is certified in conflict resolution and is a long-time concrete finisher who is also a writer and communicator. E-mail