There is not a day that goes by that I don’t fail, usually several times before lunch. It’s not that I enjoy failing or try to fail, it’s that I know it’s the only way I ever find success.
The process of innovation requires all manner of trying things that are probably not going to work as a way of finding ones that do. Solving difficult problems is like a mouse searching for cheese in a maze. It can smell success but it turns down many dead ends in the process. Most of my life is spent going down dead ends working to find the path that will work. Obviously, I don’t feel good when I go the wrong way, but I recognize that it’s a given to running the maze, and the only way to succeed is to go down blind alleys more quickly.
Going quickly means that you sometimes end up repeating mistakes. We learn through repetition and mistakes are no exception. The mouse can not solve the maze more quickly be pausing at every corner and reflecting on whether this really is the one he wants to go down because he is afraid it will be the wrong way. But if every failure causes pain, we will naturally be more likely to slow down. This will not help us find success more quickly, just prolong the frustration of the search.
I’ll sometimes tell people that I failed at something and they’ll respond by trying to convince me that it wasn’t a failure. Are we so afraid to recognize that we make mistakes that when we do, we have to cover it over with fluff. This is what increases the pain and slows us down to trying to do something we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to do.
There are obviously different levels of failure – a dead end just means keep trying, running off a cliff however is catastrophic. I’m not suggesting blind running, being thoughtful about what we do, but being willing to lay it out and fail is the only way we add value in a world that is filled with ambiguity.
We all live in a maze, filled with decisions that we can’t see the final outcome of. We should not cower in fear of failure, but run the maze with gusto.
Picture from MarcelGermain
I want to suggest to you today, that unless we have a tolerant attitude toward mistakes — I might almost say “a positive attitude toward them” — we shall be behaving irrationally, unscientifically, and unsuccessfully. Now, of course, if you now say to me, “Look here, you weird Limey, are you seriously advocating relaunching the Edsel?” I will reply, “No.” There are mistakes — and mistakes. There are true, copper-bottom mistakes like spelling the word “rabbit” with three Ms; wearing a black bra under a white shirt; or, to take a more masculine example, starting a land war in Asia. These are the kind of mistakes described by Mr. David Letterman as Brushes With Stupidity, because they have no reasonable chance of success.
But I’m talking about mistakes which, at the time they were committed, did have a chance. The problem may be linguistic — we don’t have a good word for “a reasonable try which didn’t come off.”
All of which ties in with my experience of what makes a group function more creatively. People must lose their inhibitions. They must gain the confidence to contribute spontaneously to what’s happening. Inhibition arises because of the fear of looking foolish, the fear of making mistakes. People are held back by this fear; they go over each thought they have six times before expressing it, in case someone will think it’s “wrong.” While this is going on, nothing useful can happen creatively.
A positive attitude towards mistakes will allow them to be corrected rapidly when they occur. We all know that when we and our colleagues admit our mistakes, it’s comparatively easy to put them right. The problems come when mistakes are denied. If you don’t acknowledge a mistake, you can’t correct it.
John Cleese, “The Importance of Mistakes”, 1988