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What We Can Learn From James Dyson’s 5,126 Failures

No, it won’t make you a billionaire — but it’s still valuable.

Charlotte Grysolle
Charlotte Grysolle
4 min read
Source: New York Times

5,126.

That’s how many failures James Dyson went through before finding the winning prototype for his first vacuum cleaner.

Five thousand — one hundred — twenty-six!

That meant four years of developing the product, going deep into debt and putting up his house as collateral to the bank loan. He pinned everything on this invention without any guarantees that it would ever work.

That level of determination and patience is absolutely mind-blowing to me.

James is now the fourth richest person in the UK with an estimated net worth of £16.3 billion. Well deserved, I say!

I have always been fascinated by stories of people refusing to give up, almost to the point of absurdity. Where does that drive come from? Are they born like that, or is it something that can be learned?

Now, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll follow in James’ footsteps, but that’s okay. That’s not my ambition. For me, it’s about learning from his mindset and his process.

Here are three ways I find inspiration in his story whenever I am feeling demotivated.


Be Logical and Persistent

James claims that his invention had nothing to do with being brilliant, but everything with being logical and persistent.

Every day for four years, he would walk to the shed in the back of his garden to build new prototypes.

Here’s how he talks about that time:

It sounds tedious, but it was the complete opposite. It was absolutely fascinating day after day building, maybe one cyclone a day and testing it. I was testing it for dust capture, the ability to capture, retain the dust. And also for the airflow through the cyclone, because I didn’t want it to be too restrictive. So it was fascinating. I’d do an experiment and sometimes it would get better, sometimes it would get worse. But because I only made one change at a time, I knew exactly what it was that had made it better or exactly what it was that made it worse. So it’s a process of learning by experimentation.

According to James, this was the only way to identify the effect of the tweak he made. If he made two changes, he wouldn’t know which works or which didn’t work. He’d only know its performance; he wouldn’t know why.

5,126 times. I can’t phantom the patience and self-control.

It makes me think of how I’ve approached some things in my own life. For example, I’ve been struggling with shins issues from running for years. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t run, so I was trying tons of different things simultaneously. Physiotherapy, ice before and after the run, new shoes, insoles, foam rolling, compression socks, and so on. Not seeing immediate results, I’d give up after a few days or weeks and try the next thing. It’s been three years, and I still don’t know what the real issue is. If I had approached it differently, trying one thing at a time to see the impact of each, I might have found a solution by now.

My takeaways? Be systematic and methodical. Don’t just try a bunch of different, random things. Move fast, but one step at a time.


Focus on Continuous Improvement

Often, when planning our new habits, goals, or resolutions, we focus on BIG changes. We convince ourselves that success requires massive action — intense training schedules, new expensive equipment, weekly classes, strict diets, and so on. We feel super excited and motivated for about 3–4 days, but the results never seem to come quickly enough, and we give up. Sounds familiar?

James’ story reminds me of the importance of focusing on continuous improvement instead of making big changes at once.

That’s is the core idea of the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, often referred to as the ‘strategy for 1% gains.’ The 1% gains are incremental, and if you keep building on the 1% gains, the rewards are phenomenal. When individuals or teams implement Kaizen, they circumvent the upheaval, unrest, and mistakes that often go hand-in-hand with major innovation.

No, it’s not as sexy or sensational. It might take hundreds of minor tweaks, not seeing much progress for a while, wondering whether it’s worth the time and effort — but it’ll be far more meaningful in the end.

My takeaway? Find a way to enjoy the process. Rather than expecting quick results, be prepared for slow, gradual progress. Rather than expecting sudden leaps in ability, skills and progress, expect marginal improvements over a period of time.


Be In It For The Long Run

At one point, James was two million pounds in debt. He had people left and right telling him his hoover would never sell. His wife was teaching extra classes to make ends meet.

It would have made sense for him to give in.

To be clear, I am not recommending going into debt, but the story does teach us something about having a long term vision and managing your expectations.

James had never expected that it would take him that long and cost him that much.

Things will always take longer than you anticipate. You’ll run into obstacles, and you’ll have to change your plan along the way.

If James can build 5,000 prototypes, I can absolutely write 100 articles without expecting quick results. You can make 100 attempts at whatever you are trying to achieve without expecting immediate results.

The difference between a successful and unsuccessful person is not genius or creativity. It’s persistence. Patience. The ability to keep doing something despite obstacles or immediate payoffs.

As James says:

I have always found that the very moment you’re ready to give up, that if you go on a little longer, you end up finding what you’re looking for. It’s one of life’s rewards for perseverance.
Source: Janis Ozolins
Mindset