A good friend once asked: “Did you ever know anyone who made so many mistakes, he messed up his mistakes?”
I like this question. I like it so much that for 2014 my New Year’s Resolution is to make more mistakes more often.
Mistake is a funny word. It comes from either Old Norse “mistaka” roughly meaning to “take erroneously” or the French word “mesprendre” which translates similarly “to wrongly take”. Oscar Wilde says mistakes are the same thing as experience. An optimist would say that there are no mistakes, only learning opportunities. Whether termed mistakes, or learning opportunities, “errors” are not something we embrace, they are something we usually fear. And this is where I think we make a mistake in our mistakes: when we avoid them at all costs we side-step the blunders that lead to the greatest learning experiences, revelations and possible scientific revolutions.
In Mario Livio’s most recent nonfiction book Brilliant Blunders, Livio explains how mistakes made by five of the world’s most acknowledged thinkers contributed to their fields and advanced areas of science and mathematics. The book provides the example of Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize winning chemist, who incorrectly proposed that DNA was triple-stranded. The triple-stranded model had flaws that Pauling should have recognized before publishing, yet the Nobel prize winner made a mistake, as we all should be willing to do. His mistaken model resulted in inspiring other researchers to reexamine current theory and reinvent the flawed triple-stranded model to create the one we currently have in use. According to Livio, it was the publishing of Pauling’s mistaken model that inspired Watson and Crick to perform the research that led to the current double helix model we use today. The book quotes Pauling as a man without regrets for publishing a mistake:
“Mistakes do no harm in science because there are lots of smart people out there who will immediately spot a mistake and correct it. You can only make a fool of yourself and that does no harm, except to your pride. If it happens to be a good idea, however, and you don’t publish it, science may suffer a loss.”
If Pauling is right and mistakes do no harm other than to pride, let’s risk the pride. I like to pretend that there is a mathematical equation describing the number of mistakes as a function of the number of risks taken multiplied by some constant rate of mistakes. Say for example that the rate of mistakes is .25 so that for every four things you do, one of them results in an unexpected outcome, a mistake. (If that mistake rate seems high, it is that I don’t want to make a mistake in underestimating the mistake rate.) If this is the case, we are missing out on a considerable chunk of productive outcomes, or even mistaken but interesting outcomes, when we lower the number of risks taken because of our fear for the results that emerge, in this example, 25% of the time.
Risk implies more mistakes. Risk implies a higher probability of failures than successes. Risk implies that when success comes it is worth the failures that were more probable.
People before me have described risk and the beauty of mistakes in words I am grateful to share:
“Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.” – Sophia Loren
“While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.” – Henry C. Link
“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein
“The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” – Theodore Roosevelt
“You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made. But I just kept pushing.” – Rene Descartes
What I love about mistakes is that we can’t try to make them. Mistakes are mistakes because they are unintentional. They come with trying more, asking more, doing more, seeing more — things that are good things to resolve in 2014.
More mistake quotes to stay inspired are found here.