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Making Mistakes Matters

Changing our attitude to failure changes everything

“Je ne regrette rien” was famously sung by the genius that was Édith Piaf. It shows a great attitude to dealing with whatever life throws at you, something we can all learn from. Why is this important? A common factor amongst top performers is their ability to deal with setbacks and out and out failures.  This is critical to the ideas in our new book Enabling Genius: a mindset for success in the 21st century.  Recent experimental evidence shows that those that can deal with failure are ultimately more successful.

I will look at failure from different perspectives in four short articles. The first discusses arguably the greatest contributor to human progress, the scientific process. This is based on falsifiability, the idea that good science is based on testable ideas, that can potentially be proved wrong. The second covers the organisational benefit of embracing mistakes. Thirdly, I discuss ‘flow’, a delightful state achieved right on the cusp of success and failure. Finally, I discuss the personal qualities of ‘grit’ and mindset, measures of how well we respond to failure.

Making mistakes matters: Part 1 ‘The success of the scientific method’

I would argue that the scientific method is one of the crowning achievements of mankind. The approach supported by our innate curiosity to understand everything has led to unparalleled progress in countless fields e.g. healthcare, the Internet and our understanding of the origins of the Universe. Historically, when challenge to the status quo is supported and encouraged so is progress. When we haven’t, as during the middle ages, we stall.  As technology (built from scientific ideas) has advanced, so has the speed of our progress.  Today, new innovations move from concept to mass market adoption in a handful of years (some may argue not all of these have been a good thing).

None of this would have happened without the basic principle of the scientific method, falsification. The initial hypothesis is tested in attempt to prove it incorrect.  Albert Einstein has been paraphrased as saying “no amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; but a single experiment can prove me wrong”.  This puts into context what it means to be a scientist.  They may spend their whole lives developing a hypothesis for it ultimately to fail, when evidence is found confounding their idea.

However, this failure is to be celebrated.  Errors are found in current theory are what drives science forward.  This creates opportunity for new research to find better ways to deal with the observed problem.  There have been numerous examples of this: the early theory of light (particle or wave and its speed), the perihelion of Mercury and the ultraviolet catastrophe.  Newton’s laws of gravity do not accurately describe Mercury’s orbit.  This was noted in the mid 1800s and it wasn’t until Einstein had developed General Relativity that he found a testable verification of his famous theory that significantly improved the fit with experimental data.

The development of a theory in the first place is often a long-term effort spanning years and potentially decades. It took Einstein 10 years to extend Special Relativity to the general version. Over that time he faced many failures, but he persevered. Buoyed by his success, he then spent the rest of his life failing to build a new theory combining relativity and quantum mechanics.  He is said to have been working on this on the day he died.

So the success of the scientific process has lessons for all organisations.  In particular, it suggests the need to invest in new things that might potentially fail, but without this there would be no innovation leading to new products and services.  In the IT world, the Agile approach is also potentially better at dealing with the uncertainties of the software development process and dealing faster with potential failures.  Finally, organisational leaders need to accept that failure is not always a bad thing, what makes the difference is how you deal with it.