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Tripping into Terra Incognita: How Mistakes Take Us To New Places

A mistake is a collision between your perception and reality. As such, it's a terribly valuable asset.

Some years ago, I traveled to Kansas City to work on a project. It was my first trip to the city. That night, I asked the hotel clerk where I should eat and she directed me to a nearby chain restaurant. After I’d walked half a mile or so, I realized I was completely lost.

I could see the hotel behind me, but had no idea in which direction the restaurant was. I pressed ahead, and in another block I came across a neighborhood called Old Westport, lined with funky shops and interesting eateries. I had never heard about this neighborhood before.

Suffice it to say that I ate there that night and almost every night after that until my project was over.

Companies and individuals go to great lengths to avoid mistakes. Motorola’s Six Sigma management strategy has spread beyond its roots in industrial process control to give managers the illusion that they can “mistake-proof” sales processes, marketing activities and creative work. When we inevitably do make a mistake, we act like someone tripping on a crack in a sidewalk – we move on as fast as we can and hope no one notices.

But if we think about where mistakes can take us, it’s to the margins, to the unknown, the unexplored – the area beyond Sigmas. And what can we learn there? We can see that some of our cherished assumptions are invalid, and that there are opportunities we never imagined.

Mistakes can take us to the margins, to the unknown, the unexplored…

In fact, the history of invention is full of significant leaps that resulted from mistakes or happy accidents. Charles Goodyear, while demonstrating a sample of his rubber mixture, accidentally dropped the sample on a hot stove and noticed that the parts that hadn’t charred were strong and flexible, at that moment inventing the process for vulcanizing rubber. And in 1879 Constantin Fahlberg, while investigating the properties of coal tar, forgot to wash his hands after work and then ate a piece of bread, finding it unaccountably sweet. When he realized the sweetness had come from the dust on his hands, he discovered the first artificial sweetener, saccharin.

A mistake is a collision between your perception and reality. As such, it’s a terribly valuable asset. Goodyear had not imagined that the charring process could be useful. Fahlberg wasn’t looking for flavorers. Only by erring did they discover these heretofore unknown qualities.

You may not make an amazing accidental discovery. However, I am sure that you believe certain things are correct, and many of them are not. Your mistakes will show you. For example, I’ve never seen a sales forecast that was right on the nose (I was particularly good at significantly undershooting them). But in analyzing and evaluating why your sales plan isn’t falling into place just as you had imagined, you get insight and hard evidence that you can use to tune your marketing, lead generation, targeting, etc., to maximize the sales you can bring in.
As this article nicely puts it, the ability to turn obstacles – or accidents – into assets is a hallmark of great achievers:

Successful people work with what they have at hand — whatever comes along — and try to use everything at their disposal in achieving their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon.

So the next time you find yourself, after a mistake or some unexpected result, walking through terra incognita, don’t rush back to safety. Stay for a while and take a look around. You’ll be surprised at what you find.

What’s Your Story?

When has a mistake taken you someplace new and wonderful?

Comments (29)
  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Great point!

    One way to re-frame situations that don’t go as planned is to say to yourself: “That didn’t go as I expected. How can I make it right and learn for next time?”

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Palle Dahlstedt

    Not only downright mistakes are important. The mistakes have smaller cousins, equally important for creative process: The insufficient predictive capacity we have in relation to the tools we use, causing the material result to differ from our original idea (often in a good way). And the ambiguity of the material result that causes our revised idea to change (also, often in a good way).

    This becomes clear when you look att creativity as an iterated process between idea and material, and not only as a flash from nowhere. In art, this is essential. The original idea is important, but may very well change completely during the implementation of it.

  • Heresyoursignduh

    I question the amount of creative incite a person has who is in the greatest BBQ city in the world and then chooses to go to a chain dinner when they had the time to stroll around. That is something like saying you went to New York and stumbled on this place called Greenwich and acting surprised by it. 

  • Matthew

    Really great. I enjoy contemplating the positives of mistakes here. I’ve made lots of mistakes. I don’t think I truly regret any of them. Each one, has indeed been a device to learn, improve, and build on. Mistakes are critical. Giving yourself opportunity to make mistakes is even more critical. I think i’ll go make some more now… ; )

  • jmcaddell

    I’m glad I didn’t include the story about my trip to Overland Park, KS 😉

  • jmcaddell

    Palle, would you call that a “positive deviance”?

  • Palle Dahlstedt

    I’m not sure what to call it. I wouldn’t call it a deviance, since that depends on that something, the departure point, is regarded as a norm. In my view, this exploration of the possible is the norm. The original idea is but a seed. As part of my research (in computer-aided creativity), based on my own creative work (as composer/improviser), I’ve developed a model of artistic creative process, where I try to describe the “mechanics” of this navigation of the space of the possible. Next step is to make software models of it…work has just begun.

  • Srinivas Rao

    Loved this. One of my favorites here at the99. I think most of the last 2 years has been a series of fortunate accidents for me. I made the “mistake” of finishing business school in April 09, and graduated into a terrible market. That mistake resulted in the formation of all these creative projects. I once said making too many life plans limits your potential as crazy as that might sound. 

  • Duane Lambe

    Last year, I was researching what types of benefits cannabis might have for certain neurological states, and I accidentally discovered I had autism. I didn’t even know I had a thing.

    Instead of sitting on my ass, I was doing research purely out of curiosity, and found out something life-changing.

    You never know where the information is going to come from. If I hadn’t been doing what I had been doing at the time, I may never have known.

    Also, if you draw, paint, play music, etc., you’ll get a lot of “happy accidents”, as the kids like to call them. People say “Oh, it came from somewhere outside me.” Lame. What they mean is, they weren’t expecting it, but their own body did it somehow. It’s not magic, as many people like to attribute it to, it’s purely science, but it still feels awesome when it happens.

    The beaten path is typically beaten to death before you even get there.

  • Jane Pellicciotto

    I’m afraid too many of us creatives will barely produce (for ourselves) because we’re so attached to perfectionism. This makes it almost impossible to see mistakes as gifts. Maybe we need to think like the Japanese and their concept of wabi sabi, intentionally introducing “mistakes” or else embracing naturally occurring ones as beauty.

    The more you produce, the more mistakes you make, and in doing so, you give yourself a chance to embrace the mistakes. I hold back too much, so when I finally sit down to create I don’t leave myself any room for goofs-as-gifts because that’s my one chance to be “perfect.” I also think the more you do, the more it becomes play and the less you care about the final output.

  • Marc Buxton

    from every mistake we must surely be learning….George Harrison

  • Larry Nocella

    I like the abstract graphic with this article. It seems to imply a mistake leading a pattern to new places, but that’s when it’s interpreted left-to-right. Read right-to-left it’s like an individual being squashed in favor of conformity. Or perhaps a dangerous error removed. Interesting. Like the graphic and love this site! Thanks for listening.

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  • Michellediazt

    Great!! If you cannot make it better, just relax . A mistake will soon arise and save you!!!

  • Ashley Jacobsen

    I fully believe in this principle.  I had a great example of this while on vacation.  We missed a turnoff to a sight we wanted to see… by about a half hour.  We decided to turn around, even though we still had a daunting 2-hour back-road trek ahead of us and the day was waning.  
    When we arrived at our destination, a closed-off ghost town that we hadn’t made proper arrangements to visit, we found the gate locked.  Less than a minute later, someone arrived to let us in, because they happened to be in the middle of nowhere at precisely the right time!  If we hadn’t missed our turn, we would’ve never been able to see this spectacular sight. 
    Sometime the mistake is why something is successful!

  • Brian Jackson

    An accident in layer options in Photoshop lead to this photographic treatment of actor/magician Ricky Jay.  I use this as an example of the power and importance of creative accidents to students and colleagues.

  • Sam Jones

    really connecting to what your saying about the original idea being the seed and creativity not always being a solid idea that you create to the exact plan you thought of when you had the idea. Which i find impossible a lot of the time. Im struggling to keep the idea on track and a lot of the time it ends up either a noted down vague idea that doesnt go past there or a messy attempt at something creative that went of on a lot of tangents and ended up with me getting bored or giving up. Most of the time my ‘internet comments’ show this too, by going of on tangents and rants and they get very messy. I always say i have really bad structure. You could say i have the attention span of like a dog or something; ill start on 1 topic then it will trigger something else and ill go off-topic a bit and it gets messy. Before finally giving up cos its maybe to messy. You get the idea im trying to get across? lol

    Basically i would much appreciate any links on the topic your discussing? some interesting places to look or things to google? kudos and peace internet brother lol

  • jmcaddell

    This is what I’m talking about!

  • Lorel Cornman

    I am an abstract painter and I court “mistakes.”  My most interesting, exciting work results from finding “mistakes,” and unintended accidents in which I am able to see new directions and possible solutions to hitherto unencountered “mistakes.”

  • jmcaddell

    I thought readers might also be interested in this video from Milton Glaser that talks about how failure enables new discoveries: 

  • Debbie Glencross

    this is how Flemming discovered Penicillin (fungi contaminated his bacterial cultures and prevented the bacterial growth…. what if he had just thrown out the cultures? 

  • Samad


  • dsgnr

    Amazing “info graphic”. The title and the graphic… nothing else needed. Point taken and appreciated. Bravo!

  • James Lytle

    It’s a fight to keep that child-like play mindset to do something “wrong”, to not see that as incorrect. This is part of the core to any creative pursuit. It’s funny how you often find answers, when you stop looking for them. Great works come out of allowing our artistic minds to play with these oddities a few minutes more than 99% of the population. 

  • Zzarbed

    accidentally getting to this website by clicking the wrong link on google (:

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