By Dave Hood
“The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”—Pablo Picasso
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”—Albert Einstein
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” —Salvador Dali
Many people believe that making a mistake is failure. These sorts of people tend to view the world from one of two alternatives: Either you succeed or you fail at anything you work toward achieving. They have learned this “mindset” as children from teachers, parents, coaches, in the workplace. The mindset of “to error is failure” becomes inscribed in the psyche, resulting in a mental block, preventing them from trying something new, taking a best chance, becoming a calculated risk taker, learning to be creative. It was Vincent Van Gogh, the famous modern painter, who said, “What would life be if we had no courage to achieve anything?”
In school, as a child, I learned that “to error is failure.” Whenever I completes a test, the teacher would mark the test with a red pen. If a mistake was made, the teacher placed an “X” next to the answer. Whenever I earned a grade of less than 50%, I learned that “to error is failure.” In those days, teachers rarely gave you a second chance to complete the test again.
At home, many children are reared by parents who embrace the “to error is failure” mindset. Whenever a child makes a mistake, washing dishes, cooking a meal, vacuuming the house, taking initiative, the parent criticizes or corrects. First time parents are often strict, embracing the old school mentality, learning from trial and error. There is no second chance to do it right the second time. And so, the child learns that “to error is failure.”
In playing sports, as a child, I learned that the goal of the game was winning. If your team won the baseball or hockey match, you were a success, and praised for it. If your team lost, often because of mistakes or inability to execute, you “failed” to win the game. You learned that losing wasn’t enjoyable–which implied that mistakes are not pleasurable or fun. There was no second chance to play the game again, so that you could win, and feel the pleasure of victory. And so, you learned that “to error is failure.”
When people grow up, they have learned to “fear failure.” Many people refuse to do anything that might result in failure. I know of a guy who refused to ask women to dance, because he feared being “rejected.” I know of a woman who has stayed in the same job for 25 years. She has refused to apply for other jobs, fearing that she might not be successful in the new job. I know another woman who would rather ride the public transit than take her driving test. A driver’s license would provide her with the freedom to purchase her own car and drive wherever she desires. She fears that she’ll “fail the driving test.” She also imagines “crashing her new automobile.”
Some workplaces embrace the view that you either succeed or fail. CEO’s, executives, and managers who hold this mindset are called “tyrants.” When you make a mistake, you are humiliated, bullied, reprimanded, threatened with termination. If you do a good job, you are rewarded with promotion and a pay increase. If you do a mediocre job, you are given an ordinary performance review, and no raise or promotion. If you fail, you are usually shown the exit. And so, you learn that “to error is failure.” Yet, the best companies, run by the best people, take a different approach. They believe in human resource management–employees are the most valued asset. When mistakes are made, the employee is given an opportunity to improve. The company will provide additional coaching, training, constructive criticism, and mentoring. Not too many people desire to work for a tyrant or company that embraces the “to error is failure” mindset. Yet, many firms still hold this belief and embrace the practises of the tyrant manager.
The reality of life is that most successful people have failed far more times that they have succeeded. Read the biographies of any successful person. More often than not, you’ll will discover that successful people fail, often many times, before they succeed. What sets them apart from the ordinary person is that they persevere, using mistakes as feedback to alter their approach or strategy or technique. They view mistakes as opportunities to improve—they give themselves a second chance, and refuse to “beat themselves up.” Thomas Edison, the invented the incandescent light bulb, completed many experiments before he discovered the right light bulb. Edison said that he “failed his way to success.” The Wright brother, inventors of the airplane, had to build and test several planes before they succeed at creating a plane that could fly. Henry Ford, who invented the automobile, continually refined his techniques before the right automobile was put into mass production. Ford said, “One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is the only opportunity to more intelligently begin again.”
If you desire to become more creative, develop fresh ideas or create some object of art, such as a short story, master a musical instrument, become a expert photographer, you must throw away the mental block of “to error is failure.” Anyone who has learned how to play the piano knows that they must practise over and over to master the skills of playing piano. They have learn that mistakes provide feedback to polish technique. As well, creativity is a process. Rarely is there “sudden inspiration.” Creativity “requires that you experiment and persevere, using the mistakes as opportunities or constructive criticism to improve. The vast majority of writers must revise their poems, short stories, novel, essays, and so forth, countless times before their work is published. Most photographers take many photographs to “capture the perfect shot.” In fact, photographers are taught to bracket exposures to improve the odds of “taking the perfect picture.” The photographer will take the picture at different exposures, such as aperture priority f/8, f/ll, f/16. Or the photographer will take an overexposed, correctly exposed, and under exposed shot. In the digital darkroom, the photographer will select the best image. Creative people also embrace ambiguity. They know that life is filled with things that are not clearly evident, offering several possible outcomes or solutions. Creative types work on one possibility, the one they believe is best for their project.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life. One of the biggest mistakes was smoking cigarettes. For five years, as a young adult, I smoked 10 or more cigarettes a day. I started off as a casual smoker. Whenever I’d go out for a drink at a bar or a cup of java in a coffee shop with a girlfriend, who was a smoker, I’d light up when she did. In a short time, I became both physically and mentally addicted to nicotine. After ten years of smoking, I developed asthma, which forced me to quit. It took 10 attempts to “kick the habit of smoking.” That was in 1991. Only once, in 1997, during a stressful time in my life, did I have the desire to smoke cigarettes again. While I was smoking, I knew it was bad for my health. After six months, I quit again, for good. I have not had a puff in 16 years. I learned from my mistake. Yet, there are many people who say, I am unable to quit.” What the person is really saying is that he or she doesn’t want to make the effort to give up cigarette smoking. Mistakes provide you with an opportunity to alter your actions and beliefs.
For many years, when I made a mistake, I was hard on myself. The voice in my head would say, “You fucked up.” This self-criticism would often make me feel discouraged, even depressed. Though I never gave up, the mistake poisoned the experience, which evoked a sense of “failure.”As I have grown older, I’ve learned to view mistakes in two ways: Some things in life provide little opportunity for error. For instance, if you climb the side of a mountain, and you slip, there’s a good chance that failure will result in injury or death. If you jump out of a plane, and the parachute doesn’t open, there’s a high probability that you’re going to die. And so, I avoid making high risk mistakes, failures that don’t provide me with a second chance. Instead I embrace the views of the successful inventors, artists, discovers, “taking mistakes in stride.” Now I believe that mistakes are not failures. Mistakes provide me with an opportunity to improve. A mistake is like a suggestion, advice on how to refine my techniques or skill or strategy at some endeavor. I believe what John F. Kennedy said is true: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve.”