Good ideas often come from mistakes. If you can’t think of a single example of this in your own work, you haven’t been working very long. Mistakes are essential for the creation of new ideas, and this lesson will cover how you can improve the odds that you stumble upon an insight or great idea through error.
Ideas Born from Error
Many discoveries and good ideas throughout history have come accidentally. Discoveries that paved the way for the microwave, the telephone, and the television all came from mistakes, errors, confused researches, or all of the above. The triode, which made possible many electronic devices, was invented by someone who later openly admitted that he didn’t know why it worked; his research had actually been guided by completely false assumptions. Perhaps the most significant example was when a scientist named Alexander Fleming was careless with one of his experiments and inadvertently stumbled upon something called penicillin. Turns out that stuff has been pretty useful.
Why Does Error Produce Ideas?
In some instances, discoveries are simply found through error. No further steps needed. Most of the time, however, the error begins a new process of thinking that eventually leads you to a great new idea. Why does this happen?
Mistakes and errors force you to reexamine what has happened. They force you to look at cause and effect and reconsider your perspective. They cause you to abandon assumptions you would have otherwise always held true. It sometimes takes doing something differently than it has ever been done to realize that different can be better.
In short, “Being wrong forces you to explore.” (Steven Johnson)
Environments for Error
Here are the keys to creating an environment where accidental discoveries are more possible … without just inviting mishaps and chaos.
Learn from mistakes. Mistakes and accidents are inevitable. That’s not something you can control very well. What you can control is how you respond to error. Much like learning from failure, responding to error or accidents with an open mind and positive attitude can make all the difference between gaining new insight and missing an opportunity.
Reflect. When things go to plan, cause and effect are often predictable. Mistakes can reveal new patterns of cause and effect, or at least allow you to reflect on how certain outcomes can happen in an experiment or particular situation. Give yourself time to reflect after a mistake, and consider if a new connection or insight can be made.
Use error as a gauge for pacing your work. Zero mistakes might mean you’re moving too slow. This might not apply to everyone, but in many creative fields, we often balance quality with speed. If you’re not making any mistakes whatsoever, it might be a sign that you could move faster. Facebook’s original motto was, “Move fast and break things.” This should give you an idea of what they prioritize and the fact that they value learning above perfection.
Planning to make mistakes is not something anyone really encourages. Rarely does anyone advise that you should be deliberately careless or haphazard with your work simply in the hopes that it will lead to some magical accidental discovery.
The major takeaway here is this: Don’t be so quick to dismiss a mistake and move on. Error might not be something you aim for intentionally, but you can definitely control how you react to it. Next time, try to see mistakes as opportunities to change your perspective.
Next lesson, we’ll see how another seemingly challenging thing—obstacles—can actually lead to good ideas.
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