The Science of Making Mistakes

by Sean D'Souza

The Science of Making Mistakes

That may seem to you, to be the silliest headline ever. Why would you need to learn how to make mistakes? You’re already a pro at making mistakes. You don’t need a how-to article to tell you how to make mistakes, right? But bear with me as we explore why mistake making is a science.

At Psychotactics, we have a cartooning course

This course is designed to teach anyone (yes, anyone) to learn to draw superb cartoons. But guess what? Most of the folks who join the course can’t really draw.

They probably haven’t drawn much since sixth grade. And if there’s one thing that’s absolutely guaranteed, is that they’re all going to make mistakes in the course.

Except they don’t want to…

Which is normal. Who’d join a course to make mistakes? So the best thing is to let someone get it right. If they get too many things wrong right at the start, disillusionment sets in. And it’s hard to keep going if you look like a goofball.

It’s also hard for those supporting you to say “Wow, that looks great!” So the first goal is to get as much right as possible. But getting things right is a tedious process, because you’re not experimenting enough. And the irony is once you start experimenting you make mistakes—tons of mistakes.

Which is why time needs to be set aside to make mistakes

So we enter a phase of speed drawing. In a fixed time of say, 30 minutes, the participants are encouraged to draw as many characters as possible. And you only get a pat on the back from me, the teacher, if you make a ton of mistakes.

This method appears to be contrary to what your teacher told you in school, but it works. Suddenly the mistake-making brain goes to work, churning out 20 or 30 cartoons in less than 30 minutes.

And suddenly you find it’s not so terrible to make mistakes after all

For one, you realise that your slow, tedious work is not a lot better than the quick, slap-dash work. And that both, the slow, tedious work, and the mistake-making exercise, have their roles to play.

It also relieves you of the need to be always right. And because everyone is making mistakes at the same time, the entire exercise turns out to be enormous fun, instead of a shameful activity.

The same principle is put into play when doing other courses

In the Headlines course, we have a period of writing headlines correctly. And then a period of writing every single headline wrong. To write the headline wrong, you have to know how to write it correctly in the first place. So the brain is forced to focus, but there’s no downside. You can’t get a mistake-making exercise wrong.

There’s just no way to get it wrong. You can make all the mistakes you want, and not have the slightest fear or embarrassment. And this removal of fear is what allows you to learn faster.

In effect, talent is just the elimination of mistakes

We see talent as something inborn. But it’s not inborn at all. Anyone can learn to write headlines or draw cartoons, or do anything to an exceptional degree—if they make enough mistakes and proceed to eliminate the mistakes.

But how can you eliminate mistakes if you don’t make them in the first place? The only way out of this trap is to have a system to make mistakes.

Airline pilots go through a mistake-making drill

Pilots aren’t just taught to fly planes correctly. In training (and the training is ongoing) they are put into situations where things go horribly wrong.

They’re then expected to work through those mistakes and work out a way to get the plane back on an even keel. Top sporting teams don’t just work on their strategy of winning.

They also closely examine situations where things can go horribly wrong and how to pull out of it. And the reason is simple. Getting things right once is a fluke. You have to get things right consistently, and often there’s no second chance. To be at this level of readiness, you have to be prepared to make mistakes while learning.

That’s the key factor: While learning

This article isn’t about you goofing up just for the sake of it. No one wants to be in a plane where the pilot is trying to get out of a tailspin. No one wants his or her favourite team to be trying out a new maneuver in the middle of the game.

Most of the major mistakes need to be made in practice, so that when it’s show time you’ve eliminated as many glitches as possible.

You need to get things wrong consistently and then iron out the mistakes

So if you’re a teacher, you need to institute a period for getting things right. And then getting them wrong. If you’re a student of a skill, you need to announce that you will try and get things right (and point out what you think you got right).

And then go through a part where you get things wrong on purpose, relieving you of the tension and need to be right and perfect all the time.

Get things wrong. Make it a science project. See how many things you can get wrong on purpose. And then fix the glitches later.

It’s the fastest way to getting things right.

Did you find this article useful? You can leave your comments here. I would love to hear from you.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Rodney Daut March 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Sean,

I really like the idea of having a period of doing things right and another period of doing things wrong on purpose. I’m going to find a way to use that in my own self-learning.

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Sean DSouza March 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Yup, let me know how it goes.

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Rodney Daut March 22, 2012 at 3:43 am

I will. :)

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Wyn March 21, 2012 at 4:11 am

Cool. I’ve been stressing out lately on something I need to write for an upcoming deadline — and my first attempt was great in some ways and a disaster in others. So… Hurray for having made that mistake and having enough time to glitch it out. (Great headline btw. Nothing “wrong” about it.) Thanks again, Sean!!

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Sean DSouza March 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Thanks Wyn :) Always great to hear from you.

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Judy McCleery March 21, 2012 at 7:59 am

I never really called the bad versions of my work mistakes, because even among a pile of useless attempts, a happy accident will often present itself. As a photographer and designer, I always try to give myself some time to fiddle around to “make mistakes” intentionally. It’s amazing what path such an exercise will lead to. But, Sean, I thank you for putting a name to this part of my workflow and giving me permission to do it!

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Sean DSouza March 21, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Well I think we should all make mistakes. And then fix it. To me, talent is just a reduction of mistakes. I don’t really believe in inborn talent.

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Christopher Jones March 22, 2012 at 2:46 am

Sean have you read Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin? Because you just gave an excellent one-sentence summary of the book’s thesis.

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Sean DSouza March 22, 2012 at 7:59 am

Yes I have read the book though it was a long time ago.

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Lyndsay March 21, 2012 at 10:04 am

This stuck a chord with me as I am one of those very people that beats themselves up each and every time I make a mistake. It’s refreshing to hear how mistake making can be a positive thing and I will endeavour to put this into practice. In fact, as I type this I’m sorely tempted to erase the whole message in case it doesn’t read write or someone makes a comment on it. But in the spirit of your post I will type just as freely as I think and congratulate you on a great article. Thanks Sean.

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Sean DSouza March 21, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I am making a comment on it :)

I’m so glad you posted, despite your fear. As I read once in a book: Be brave and great forces will be with you :)

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Jeff March 21, 2012 at 11:09 am

Hi Sean,

Funny how perfectionism can also cause paralysis.
This is what I do without thinking. Thanks for putting it into writing.
I just write without getting the intention of doing it right – never mind the mistakes.

Then out of nowhere, I have made a great one from this heap of thrash (or mistakes). :)

Thanks again.

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Sean DSouza March 21, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I think most of us have perfectionism in us, Jeff. Some of us just learn to get rid of it earlier. I mean who would want to bake a lousy cake or get all their tests wrong. But there’s a lot to learn from mistakes. And I think we should have a system to make mistakes.

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Prasad Ram March 21, 2012 at 11:17 am

Mistakes are a metric, a needs analysis, it’s so true. Sean, you hit the nail on the right spot. I believe mistakes liberate the learner. Your approach has helped me unearth potential among my staff who earlier dismissed themselves as a wreck. Thank you for the uncommon wisdom!

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Sean DSouza March 21, 2012 at 12:25 pm

You’re welcome. Make sure you have a mistake-making session. They’ll love it.

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Linda Reid March 21, 2012 at 11:20 am

I love this concept – fear stops us far too much, and by removing the ‘fear’ you create a wonderful creative space. Thank you…

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Sean DSouza March 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Yes, and it doesn’t matter how far we’ve gone, we’re still fearful with every new project. Every time I write a new book, I wonder: Will every love it or will they hate it? I know if that if I do my best, it’s going to be liked, but the fear is still there.

So you plunge into a bed of mistakes and bad stuff as well as good stuff comes from it. Mostly good :) Otherwise I’d quit.

Thanks Linda :)

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Stephen Jeske March 21, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Sean if there’s a science of making mistakes, then you can just call me Professor :)

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Sean DSouza March 22, 2012 at 8:02 am

Well, you didn’t make a single mistake in that sentence. So I can’t call you Prof. yet.

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Judy Murdoch March 21, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Love, love, love the article Sean.

I’ve toyed with the idea of rewarding clients and class participants when they make mistakes in order to encourage them to take risks. Another approach might be to ask people to produce quantity rather than quality. For example, reward the person who comes up with the most ideas no matter how goofy.

I think learning to take smart risks is one of the most important skills small business owners need to acquire to really flourish.

Question to everyone: what have been your best learning moments when it comes to having a productive relationship with making mistakes (AKA “screwing up”)

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Neil Keleher March 21, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Loved this article. I’m applying a similar idea in my dance of shiva training course.

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Fran Sorin March 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Sean…
Anyone who has studied a musical instrument or worked hard at a sport knows that practicing is all about mistakes. Slowly you build skills. Perhaps they’ll be less mistakes at that point but then you have the confidence to take more risks ….which means more mistakes.

Even world class concert pianists make mistakes performing. Most people don’t notice. But even if you do, it doesn’t matter. By the time we’re listening to them perform, their technique is astounding. At this level, it is our heart that determines whether or not we think of them as superbly ‘talented’.

Great article Sean. Fran

P.S. When are you going to be teaching the cartoon drawing class?

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Mel Kleiman March 21, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I love the way your weird mind works.

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Barbara Pates March 22, 2012 at 1:51 am

I have a magazine clipping taped to the my cupboard door in my kitchen. It is a quote from Carol Burnett,”I never learned anything from success. Success is whipped cream. I have always grown from my problems and challenges and things that didn’t work out.” Aligns to your post Sean. Thanks!

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Sean DSouza March 22, 2012 at 8:02 am

Hmm, I think success is a good teacher too, provided it’s not a fluke. If you can work out steps that you took to successfully do something, then you learn a lot from it. But if it’s a random fluke, you learn almost nothing from success.

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George March 22, 2012 at 4:23 am

Hi Sean, great post and I think you’re quite a psychologist…a fine one really! Anytime I read stuffs of here is like a breath of new life…i’m quite a self critic meself, sometimes i wouldn’t get up to write cos i know it’ll probably suck but i still have to write and so i’ll write anyway but i found out that after writing the terrible copy at first i’ll always come back to improve on it and the ideas will just keep coming, ideas that i never thought little ole me could think of would just keep pouring…so success for me starts from writing that terrible copy first. I’ll like to say this to everyone don’t be afraid of writing or doing it cos you think no one will be interested like Roosevelt said “we only have one thing to fear WHICH IS FEAR ITSELF!

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Jill Tooley March 23, 2012 at 3:53 am

Reading this made me think of a good Dr. Seuss quote: “Everything stinks til it’s finished.” If that’s not a ringing endorsement for making mistakes and committing to fixing them, then I don’t know what is! :)

It’s impossible to learn how to do something right if we aren’t aware of what we’re doing wrong in the first place. You’re right, there is a science to making mistakes, and we’re all naturals at it! It was fun reading your posts today, Sean, both here and on Copyblogger.

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Sean DSouza March 23, 2012 at 7:04 am

Thanks so much.

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John Essick March 23, 2012 at 7:28 am

Brilliant as always. Working to get my b2b copywriting business. There’s so much to learn and I’ve found the fear of not knowing everything and not getting it right holds me back. This article is inspiration to plow ahead and have no fear.

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zahib March 23, 2012 at 10:54 am

So it’s ok to make mistakes?…. *sigh of relief* :-)
I really was able to pull out some key information to assist me in making my skills more excellent.

“do anything to an exceptional degree—if they make enough mistakes and proceed to eliminate the mistakes. ”

I’m about to go put this concept to work for me.

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Sergio Felix March 28, 2012 at 7:20 am

Hey Sean,

Great analogy with the air pilots man. I think this is what a lot of people say: “fail fast” so they can develop their talents sooner. Great info, thanks.

Sergio

PS. I never saw a cartooning course around here, is it another Psycho Tactic? :-)

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Sean DSouza March 30, 2012 at 11:06 am

The course was mostly for 5000 BC members. However, in future others will be able to join as well.

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Paul Smith May 30, 2012 at 3:37 am

Great comments, Sean,
I keep telling others, the difference between a bad welder and a good welder is practice, practice. Your point about using a set time period for practice, (making mistakes,) is a Great Point. This way we have almost instant feedback from out mistakes. Somehow we need to have the perfect example displayed so we can compare and improve with each try.
When i was learning to fly an airplane, my instructor would many times have me take my hands off of the controls and shut my eyes. Then he would get the airplane controls all screwed up and headed in the wrong direction and then give me back the controls and have me correct things. We called this feeding forward.
Paul.

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Sean DSouza June 2, 2012 at 6:57 am

Yup that’s the way to go.

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