Informed Shorts: Making New and Better Mistakes

As the saying goes, there is no success without struggle. The fear of making mistakes can become disabling, particularly if our aim is to try something new or different. So perhaps we need to to reframe how we think about making errors to avoid being too constrained by the desire to not get it wrong.

The greatest mistake we make is living in constant fear that we will make one
— John C. Maxwell

The quest to be creative and innovative in our problem solving necessitates having the freedom to try new and different things. This principle applies whether we are seeking to explore new questions, or find different solutions to existing questions.

When stepping into the unknown and trying new things it is inevitable that we will make mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is an integral part of the process.


Trial and error offers one route for us to come up with solutions. What is less often recognised is that it is also part of the discovery process whereby we can establish the limits and explore the problem-solving space we are working in.

Making errors is how we find out about the world; it is also how we learn about whatever puzzle we are trying to solve. Trial and error-based exploration yields information on the constraints and boundaries of the system we are interacting with. In this context mistakes represent discoveries.

I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work
— Thomas A. Edison

If we stay within the narrow confines of what we already know we will never find out what is (and what isn’t) possible. As we stray into uncharted territory mistakes are inevitable; then again, these same mistakes provide information that was previously unknown to us.


The sport of high jump (likewise pole vault) is notable in that whatever the competition ultimately every competitor in the field fails. The winner is simply the person who fails at the highest height. There are lessons here that apply beyond track and field athletics.

If we push the boundaries of our present capabilities, naturally we will fail at various points in the process. The model for improvement is this: try; fail; fail better, again and again until we ultimately succeed; move onto new height; repeat the process.

Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth
— Machiavelli


Making mistakes is not necessarily problematic. As we have established, errors are an integral part of learning and attaining new heights. However, errors are not created equal. Some mistakes are acceptable at a given time and space, others less so.

For instance, in sports such as tennis commentators make the distinction between forced versus unforced errors. The more enlightened professional sports teams similarly differentiate between execution and work rate errors in their analysis of players’ performances.

Mistakes come in different forms and fall into various categories. For instance, there are process errors, execution errors, and judgement errors. To some extent, there is also a time and a place for each of these respective errors. The degree to which we should tolerate errors committed by ourselves and others is situation dependent.

These are important distinctions. @@We need to be discriminating in how we entertain errors, and what level of tolerance we exercise@@, based upon the type of error and the circumstances. For instance, in the context of elite sport any error caused by a lack of effort or attention is not acceptable; these errors do not serve any positive purpose and they are also preventable.


Whatever the particular type of mistake, @@errors only serve us if we can learn from them and thereby change future behaviour@@.

In the first instance an error must be detected and acknowledged before it can serve any positive function. No lesson can be taken if the learner is unaware of the error. This has important implications for practitioners, coaches, and anybody in a leadership position.

Letting a mistake go unacknowledged serves nobody; an error needs to be brought to the attention of the learner in a timely manner if they are to learn from it.

By extension, the individual involved needs to own that they have made an error. Blaming others or making excuses shows a lack of propensity to learn. This presents a major barrier and should be seen as a red flag.

@@Taking ownership for an error also means being accountable for putting it right@@. It should therefore be an expectation that the individual immediately takes any necessary steps to put a fix in place and make their error right as far as possible.

Finally, once we have reflected on the decision making and actions involved in our mistake and taken the lessons, it is essential that we move on. We need to acknowledge the uncertainty inherent in the space we work in, appreciate that the information we are working with is always incomplete, and allow that mistakes will happen. Continually beating ourselves up for past mistakes is futile and serves nobody.

To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future
— Plutarch


Equally, it is important that we are making a new mistake each time. Making the same mistake repeatedly demonstrates a lack of learning. If we are repeating a given mistake on a regular or even a periodic basis this shows we either failed to learn our lesson, or we are not paying attention.

A mistake repeated more than once is a decision
— Paulo Coelho

Equally, @@as we strive for a solution it is important that we are trying something different@@. To paraphrase Einstein, trying essentially the same thing and expecting a different outcome is lunacy. If we are going to make progress, then it is important we make mistakes in new and exciting ways - but also then learn from them, in order that we can make different and better mistakes as we proceed.


@@New and better does not necessarily immediate yield superior results@@. It is important to recognise that the new way may not outperform the old way in the short term. Equally, there is very little growth that comes from sticking with the default option, particularly if seeking nonlinear returns or great leaps forwards. As the old axiom goes, doing what we have always done will get us what we have always got.

If progress has slowed or plateaued entirely it makes sense to not only try something different, but also stick with it long enough to consolidate any changes and fully establish the efficacy of our new approach.

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