I once had the lucky opportunity to observe two rival firms trying to do the same thing; namely working out how to integrate a particular enhancement made possible by new technology into their (competing) products.
Both companies set up engineering teams. Both failed. Company A disbanded their team and grumbled about the whole fiasco. Company B gave their team another chance… and they failed. In fact they continued to fail for several months until, finally, they cracked it. For the time they remained the engineers at Company A were, as one director put it to me, “effectively wandering around the place with the word ‘loser’ written on their foreheads”. At Company B, their counterparts are still seen as creative mavericks.
Our society, based on the model of industrialism and specialism, tells us that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. Mistakes are mocked in the classroom and get you fired in the workplace. Yet deep down inside we know that making mistakes is one of the indispensible mechanisms of learning, and a defining characteristic of the human experience. Phil Oakey, that well-known metaphysical philosopher and member of The Human League famously opined, “I’m only human, born to make mistakes.” In fact mistakes are essential catalysts in the innovation process. Keith Richards, guitarist and notable anthropological theorist, was once asked how he came up with all those amazing guitar riffs. His answer? He just starts playing until he makes the right mistake. In other words he’s optimistic he will create something good by virtue of getting something ‘wrong’.
And yet, faced with the desire to make the world better, many of us are stifled by the terror of the mistakes we might make – and this dumbfounds us into inaction. Author Kathryn Schulz, in her exploration of error, summed it up nicely: “Our love of being right is best understood as our fear of being wrong.”
Successful optimists deal with that fear by knowing they almost certainly will get something wrong, and that’s not only OK, it’s fundamental. They are not paralysed by the worry of making a cock-up. They know that the only way to see the right way to do things is with the benefit of hindsight, something you can never possess when you start the journey, so its pointless to expect such clarity at the outset. As author and entrepreneur Seth Godin says: “The way to get unstuck is to start down the wrong path, right now.”
Successful optimists therefore follow the principle (number 5 in our list) that making mistakes is OK, it’s not trying that is irresponsible.
Mark Stevenson is an expert in future narratives, institutional innovation, engineered serendipity and learning and the author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future (Profile Books, 2012). He will be leading the event The Future is Up For Grabs on 20 March 2013, for more information and to book, click here. Follow him on twitter @optimistontour
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