Failure is an option! How to design your health

I love the look of Dyson stores.

I love their sleek futuristic design. The minimalist presentation. You’d think they were selling smartphones or laptops. And it turns out to be a vacuum cleaner— a vacuum cleaner! I can’t get over how someone figured out a design for a cool vacuum cleaner.

That someone is James Dyson. He was a design student working on furniture and in 1978, he was frustrated that his vacuum cleaner kept losing power when it got clogged with dirt. Right away he started prototyping a new design. Five years and 5,127 prototypes later, he finally came up with the cyclone vacuum design.

“5,127 prototypes” comes up again and again in Dyson’s story and message. I’m struck that they repeat how many times Dyson failed before he figured it out. He said in an interview

“enjoy failure and learn from it. You can never learn from successes.”

I love seeing the sketchbooks and the behind the scenes

It very Thomas Edison (one of the most prolific inventors ever) who said

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

How we view failure in health

Failure comes up a lot in fitness too. But unlike in Dyson’s case, failure in fitness is usually framed as something bad!

  • When you fail to lose weight, it’s upsetting and frustrating. You feel discouraged.

  • When you fail to go to the gym, you beat yourself up for being lazy and skipping sessions.

Over and over, we fail- we feel like shit- and we give up.

Can we benefit in fitness by borrowing from the mind of a designer?

In James Dyson case he:

  • saw something that didn’t work

  • tried to design something better

  • tested and failed many prototypes

  • got to a design that worked

  • continues to invent and test new things.

How can this process help us take a better approach to fitness?

The Steps to Design Your Own Practices

We can try taking these concepts and applying them to our health.

Step 1: Find your pain points

Start by asking these two questions:

  • "What sucks?”

  • “What hurts?”

For Dyson, “what sucks?” Was his vacuum cleaner (I’ll show myself out). He needed more power from it- but it kept getting clogged. It was annoying. It was inconvenient. That problem got him going— and he started prototyping.

For fitness, we can try the same starting point:

What hurts? Maybe it is:

  • My knees are giving me a hard time

  • My back aches when I bend over

  • My wrists hurt when I use my keyboard

What sucks? It could be:

  • I can’t find healthy food in my local markets

  • I can’t exercise outside because it’s too hot

  • A gym membership is too expensive for me

We all have these experiences. They’re hard- and you’re allowed to feel bad about them. It’s normal.

Step 2: Make some prototypes by copying

Knowing "What sucks?" and "What hurts?" becomes a starting point to go further.

Whenever I feel stuck, or I’m struggling with some kind of fitness obstacle, I’ll go online and look for ideas that I can steal. Or even better, I’ll ask a coach, or someone I trust. Then just copy and do what they’re doing.

I could reach out to a friend and ask, “Hey, I’ve been trying to work out but it’s so hot. I can’t keep my energy up. Have you been doing anything that works?”

And after asking a few people, I might have some replied to give me ideas:

  • “I train early in the morning before it gets hot.”

  • “I’ve been swimming for cardio.”

  • “I just make this a rest time. I’m waiting for the weather to get cooler.”

  • “I signed up for a gym just for these hot months.”

  • “I work out with my brother so that we keep each other motivated despite the heat.”

  • “I take ice baths after my workouts”

The relief for me here is that I don’t have to come up with some brilliant idea. I can just choose one ideas from the suggestions I got and try it myself.

The Dyson vacuum wasn’t a completely original idea also. James Dyson copied the cyclone shape from woodshops, which had these systems for gathering sawdust. He saw that someone else had a great idea, and he applied it to his own problem.

Same in fitness. Maybe someone else has an awesome fitness plan. Why don’t you try it on for size?

Step 3: Be Open Minded and Experiment

So now, just pick something and do it.

I’ll look at my list and think. “Which one would I like to try?”

A little trick here is to be open minded. Back to Dyson. In their company, the best designers, he said are those that are not bound to any methodology. That means they’re willing to try weird things to solve a problem. In fact, the stranger and riskier, the better.

Maybe riskier is not for fitness. (Don’t hurt yourself) But strange might help. Weird might help. The main idea is to be willing to experiment. And maybe to do something you don’t usually do.

If I tell myself, “I like cardio the most. And I will run no matter what the temperature is.” I might not have such a good time running in extremely hot weather. I might even harm myself.

Maybe I’ll try ice baths. I’ve never done that. Seems weird.

Or maybe I’ll just recruit a friend to help me stay motivated. Less weird. But something I’m not doing right now that I could try.

Either way- the idea is just to try something.

Step 4: Observe the Results

Whatever you choose, don’t feel like you have to do it forever. That’s not the point.

If I recruit a friend to motivate me, I can try that for a few days.

And because I'm just experimenting, then the key step is to observe how it affects me.

When I work out with a friend, is it easier for me? Or harder? Do I become relaxed? Or does it make me self conscious? Does it motivate me? Or just make me feel guilty?

What are you realizing through this experiment?

What works for you?

What doesn’t work?

And if you fail, that’s okay. Remember, 5127 prototypes. Embrace failure and learn from it.

Step 5: Fine Tune and Iterate

Okay, this is more of a "trick step." Because Step 5 brings you back to Step 1.

Through your experiment, you probably discovered things that work for you. You also probably discovered something that wasn’t your style. Maybe you found a new problem.

After working out with a friend for a while, I might realize it doesn’t work for me. It makes me competitive when someone else is around. I lose focus and try to impress them. Though I did notice that having them around did make me more consistent. So there was some benefit to the experiment/

So now I can ask a new question, how can I gain the benefit of consistency without getting into the ego trip of trying to show off? That's my problem now.

Then it's back to Step 1. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

Design your Health

In this process, there is no one-size-fits all solution to how your fitness practices should look. That’s not the goal.

Instead, you can use this process to “invent” fitness practices that are completely tailored to your own lifestyle and preferences.

I want you to feel like you’re creating a customized health plan that works best for you.

Personally, I’ve used it to “design” practices like:

  • Checking in with friends through text when I’m about to exercise for accountability. (Consistency without ego tripping)

  • Choosing hobbies that keep me active like gardening and woodworking. (I don’t have to exercise all the time)

  • Switching to “better” versions of my guilty pleasures. (Like dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate- because cutting it out didn't work)

Once last John Dyson quote:

“Nothing beats the thrill of invention. Letting people go out and try their ideas, getting them totally involved, and unleashing new thinking,”

That’s fitness for me.