Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

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

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 HBR.com 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?

More insights on: Failure, Risk-Taking

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at mistakebank.com or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
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