The art of the creative mistake
Alina Tugend, New York Times journalist, on the right way to get things wrong
Words: Alina Tugend
Montage: Tony Loveless
In Japanese classrooms, if a child makes a mistake on a test or struggles to solve an equation on the board, there is no shame. Mistakes are not something to be corrected, but explored; the teacher will ask the child, “Why did you think this way?” Then the teacher will find out who else thought this way and explore what assumptions brought them to this conclusion. Once you truly understand what you are doing wrong — rather than simply memorising a correct answer — you are much more likely to deeply understand the surrounding concepts and ideas.
In the US, and I think it’s becoming more true in other Western countries, parents begin very early instilling in their children an idea that it’s about the results not the process. Unfortunately, our society reinforces this — that it doesn’t matter if you’re learning, it matters if you win. Even though parents, coaches and teachers will often pay lip service to “it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”, or “as long as you’re learning, we’re fine with whatever you get”, they often don’t really mean it. And the children know it. The emphasis on results is so extreme that most children believe it isn’t OK to make mistakes, or fail in any area of life. As they get older, that becomes reinforced and they become adults who link risk with loss and mistakes.
The greats weren’t always great
In our society, we have this mistaken idea that people who do things that are courageous aren’t afraid, when, in fact, they usually do fear taking risks — they just overcome that fear. We read biographies of Steve Jobs or people we consider to be successful and learn how much they have failed. We know even the greatest of baseball players strike out far more often than they hit the ball. We love quoting statements from Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, talking about how every failure is important — we think those people are geniuses. But while we admire them for failing, we don’t believe we can fail.
Those with a growth mindset see ability and intelligence as malleable. They believe that they are constantly growing and learning and that their abilities aren’t pre-determined. Those with a fixed mindset believe they’re good at some things and bad at others and that won’t change. A growth mindset allows one to see mistakes as inevitable and part of the learning process. A study found that when people who didn’t have a growth mindset did poorly on a test, they were more likely to compare themselves to people who did worse, while those who had a growth mindset believed they could learn from those who did better. When we just feel bad about ourselves, we want to see other people do badly. But when we really believe that learning is a process, we’re less concerned with who did better or worse, and we’re more interested in figuring out how to do better. It’s very easy to slip back into a single/fixed mindset, and this can be subject-specific, it’s not a continuum — you can have a growth mindset in some areas of life and a fixed mindset in others. Reminding yourself about a growth mindset — even by reading a few paragraphs a day about it — can help maintain this outlook.
It seems we accept in science more creative mistakes — as most of us know, penicillin was a discovery born out of a mistake. But we don’t seem to think this applies to other areas of life. You need to realise that you’re not going to change yours, your child’s or society’s attitude overnight. But sometimes, rather than ask what our child got on a test, or how you did in a meeting, just ask, how was it? Did you enjoy it? What did you learn?
“Staff in hospitals who were given new computer systems and told to simply play around with them learned at a much deeper level than those who were told, unconvincingly by superiors, that they could make mistakes along the way”
It starts at the top
If a manager or boss doesn’t treat mistakes as complex and varied, then of course people are going to be terrified. They’re not going to be creative because they think all they have to do is get it right or please the boss, and that’s not innovative.
Research shows when people are allowed to fail — and really allowed to fail, not just the boss saying one thing and indicating the other in their actions — they work much better. Staff in hospitals who were given new computer systems and told to simply play around with them learned at a much deeper level than those who were told, unconvincingly by superiors, that they could make mistakes along the way.
Of course, initially these things put pressure on time and resources, but in the long run they are much better for the company. Managers need to recognise what has been learned from mistakes, what systematic problems might be revealed, and praise employees who take initiative and look to innovate. With social media, one misstep gets so blown out of proportion that we feel we cannot take risks — we feel too exposed. We hold each other to such a high level that everyone is afraid to make mistakes.
For example, the incident at the 2017 Academy Awards, in which La La Land instead of Moonlight was temporarily awarded best picture, was actually handled well by producer Jordan Horowitz and PricewaterhouseCoopers, but the message was one of outrage. Social media was used to criticise the mistake instead of questioning what could be learned from it and to note how gracious all involved were.
No matter how much we know and hear about how damaging social media is, we still compare our lives with those of others on Instagram, Facebook or other platforms. This goes far past the realms of celebrity: I have a friend who is going through a tough time yet she posts the opposite. We all get sucked into these glamorous lives even if we know the real story.
Studies have shown that being on Facebook for a while depresses people and in turn affects creativity. Even intellectually knowing it, the images are so powerful that turning away from it is sometimes the only thing we can do.
All we can do is constantly remind others and ourselves that it’s not real and try to make this our mantra — but it’s not easy. We have to keep practising it.
I have to remind myself when I’m feeling really uncomfortable that often it’s because I’m taking a risk. We need to pat ourselves on the back when we are taking risks, because often we are learning something new. Even if we fail. Moving outside your comfort zone is so important — and every time you do that, you make your comfort zone that much bigger. And that’s where creative experimentation begins. Not every moment of the working week will be populated by risk and experimentation; sometimes we just have to get the work done. But when the opportunity presents itself, try not to live in fear. Try to challenge yourself — once a week, once a month, once in a while. And if the risk doesn’t succeed, remind yourself that you tried.
Ultimately, the goal is not to feel great about mistakes — few people do — but to not feel devastated, to not beat yourself up and to focus on what you learned. And to realise that playing it safe all the time is a sort of failure in itself.
Inventions born from creative mistakes
Dr Alexander Fleming was researching the flu virus when he noticed a blue-green mould had contaminated a petri dish that had been left exposed under an open window in his lab. Fleming isolated the mould, which became the penicillin we still use today.
Richard James, a naval engineer, was working with tension springs when one fell from a shelf. He observed as the spring ‘stepped’ down a stack of books to the floor where it recoiled and stood upright. James marketed this as a children’s toy and years later the Slinky is still a hit amongst children around the world.
Post-it notes: 1968
Dr Spencer Silver, a scientist at stationery company, 3M, in the United States, was trying to develop a stronger adhesive. Accidentally, he created a weaker one. In 1974, a colleague, Art Fry, used the adhesive to place bookmarks in his hymn book. This crafty invention was developed into Post-it notes.
Dr John Harvey Kellogg was trying to produce a food product that adhered to the vegetarian, low-sugar diet of the Seventh-day Adventists. Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg, left cooked wheat out by accident. When they returned, the wheat was stale. They pressed and toasted it and produced what we now know as cornflakes.
Based on an interview with Robin Gillie, Editorial Assistant at White Light Media
Alina Tugend is a journalist, author and influencer. After writing regular columns for The New York Times business section and Worth magazine, in 2011 she developed one of her columns into her first book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. Widely praised and recommended by educators, business executives and readers alike, Alina continues to write for The New York Times and other publications.