My son was a great baseball player for his capabilities – but he wasn’t always. Brandon would spend, from a very young age, hours and hours practicing his craft with a dozen mentors and instructors. In the end, while he was never big enough to be a prospect, he could hit a 95 mph fast ball at 10, hit a ball 350 feet at 15 and strike out top prospects by hitting his spots with 75% efficiency. The best baseball player, the best athletes with the longest careers all develop like that. What’s that got to do with innovation? The best athletes are the hardest working and know that persistence in practicing and then immersion in real life experiences make the difference between who can adapt and see opportunity and exploit it quickly and those who just go through the motions and never adapt to changing conditions and have very short success in their careers as a result.

As Arie DeGuess said in the “Living Company”, the one with the most memories of the future usually wins. Well, in baseball, football, basketball and the like, the one who practices the most can get a lot better but the one and the team as a group who see the most varied experiences, envision the most scenarios, get the most perspectives and thus develop the most memories of the future win. Top innovators frequently have many jobs in their careers, especially early on. From developing products to selling them to servicing them to marketing them right through to working up and down the value chain, from being the buyer to the seller to the supplier to the end user. Those who play the most roles in the most varied ways develop deep context, keen instincts and see evolving and emerging trends quickly These people can adapt and thus just get out before it’s too late or enter at just the right time. That’s a lifestyle.

 Do the same thing over and over in the same way, practice the same thing the same way, only have one or two mentors or coaches, never be the customer or the managed and failure is seen all to often. My son as he got older always sought new coaches, different players with different experiences, old, young, talented, not so talented, gifted, not gifted and a few of the smart ones said “Pick what works for you son. I only know what I know, but the more you see, the better you will get if you have the wisdom to know yourself and experiment and then choose wisely for your needs”. In one’s career, force yourself to be different, dive into highly varied situations and industries. Push yourself. Train yourself. Live like an athlete.

Accept failure as experience. My son in the very beginning was an ok player. The “who’s kid is that” player sometimes. But each year Brandon advanced and got better, at an accelerated pace, with all those coaches and hours of varied practice and play. The result? The 5’8″ pitcher loved to hear before he threw the ball “Who is that guy?” and afterwards, often after one batter, “WHO is that guy?”. Three 6’2″ prospects up, three prospects down, 1,2,3. The point? Failure is not failure – it’s all about learning. Nothing is ever a failure if the experience left you wiser after the fact. What kind of person are you? Those failures are experiences that just may put you on top in the end.

You cannot fail all of the time and be the best at anything. That’s not my point. Rather, my point is that you should embrace and experiment and not be fearful of failure. Instead, learn from out, fail often enough, maybe that path is not the right right one. Learn enough, and get better each time and maybe it’s the perfect path for you, you team or your company. Often times it’s that accumulated learning curve and those joint experiences with your team, your suppliers and or your customers that allows you to work with a unique, singular level of efficiency and trust.

Overall, for the leading innovators, failure is a wondrous thing, the creator of magic. You see, Thomas Edison did to try to make light. He found a thousand ways to make light. Those thousand were not a thousand failures. It was with each that Edison found a way to make light that scaled, was economical, unleashed productivity and happened to use his distributed power system. Edison knew that that was key to his wealth. Over the years the way to develop, manage and distribute power may change constantly, but isn’t it interesting that GE is still, after all of these years, over 120 years, a dominant player in the power business? GE, while not great at everything, clearly excels at memories of the future, practices all the time and highly varies it’s employee and market experiences. Looks like GE is a lot like my son and a lot of great athletes. Practice makes perfect.