If a problem is an opportunity you've yet to solve, then a mistake is just a lesson you've yet to learn.

18.17 Chess by mistake.jpg

99% of all disappointments in life are the result of misaligned expectations.

OK, that’s a pretty big claim. But I think if you mull it over you’ll find it to be true more often than not. Nowhere is this more evident in the falsely laid expectation organizations tend to have regarding the consistency of human performance.

Let’s face it, humans are not perfect. We make mistakes. Some days a few, other days too many to reckon. But, it is not the mistakes that cause either short or long-term harm. The deepest scars are left by our failure to profit from the experience by making the appropriate changes to our thinking and process.

Getting Better by Mistake

“To err is human, to forgive divine.” (from “An Essay on Criticism,” by Alexander Pope.) But to not learn from your mistakes is a diabolical shame. More importantly, it is a waste of your potential. And, while “God may help those who help themselves,” you’re pretty much on your own if you can’t figure out how to get better by mistake.

Getting better by mistake is a concept detailed in Alina Tugend’s book, Better by Mistake. The subtitle of the book is, “The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.” So many good things happen when you take risks. Especially if the risks are predicated on your willingness to accept that you might not reach your intended goal, but you will learn from the process. By the way, sometimes the results of a “mistake” can be more profitable than your original goal.

Take Post-it Notes. 3M did, and they’ve never regretted it. At 3M there is a massive culture encouraging employees to explore with plenty of allowance for mistakes. Here’s what happened in 1968 at 3M.

No one set out to invent sticky notes. Instead Dr. Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M Company, invented a unique, low-tack adhesive that would stick to things but also could be repositioned multiple times. He was trying to invent a super-strong adhesive, but he came up with a super-weak one instead. What an incredible way to get “better by mistake”!

Every Mistake is a Lesson

When the result of an effort ends short of the goal we humans tend to analyze that result. We’re searching for an answer. Not to what went right, but what went wrong. Often the data reveals a mistake as the culprit. A mistake in judgement, estimation, calculation, intensity, application, attitude, etc.

Albert Einstein is most often credited with having said, “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result.” Guess what? He never did. But, despite Einstein’s vehement protest to the contrary, people just keep attributing this quote to him. This is ironic. While a string of intelligent people collectively continuing to make the same mistake over and over again, they are failing to learn from their mistake of their ways. They are destined to exist in this insanity loop doomed to repeat their mistake due to popular misconception and perhaps intellectual laziness. They are blind to their own mistake. Perhaps this is the real definition of insanity, “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and not learn what went wrong from the mistake we are making.”

So many people misattribute quotes, there are enough to fill a book I have in my library by Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George titled They Never Said It. And, Einstein is not even in the book!

Mastering the Mechanics of Mistakes

Since mistakes are inevitable, it makes a lot of sense to plan for them. In the science the culture is to detail every step of an experiment with two thoughts in mind. One, is have precise data in order to replicate the result should it be positive. The other, should the result not be positive, is to not replicate the result by varying a step or ingredient.

When you engage with people it makes great sense to expect less than perfection from them. It is extremely rare when a less than perfect being can create something of perfection. No matter how hard we try, everything we create has a seam on it. And that’s OK. We’re willing to live with that because we accept that. In fact, we find a comfort in the divine perfection of imperfection. There are even places where creating a near-perfect seam is rewarded. (Think tailoring.)

In her book, Ms. Tugend tackles the myth that “Perfectionists make better workers.” Her study finds that many perfectionists fear challenging tasks, take fewer risks and are less creative than non-perfectionists. One reason she offers may be that perfectionists so dread receiving feedback they don’t develop the same creative risk-taking skills as non-perfectionists.

My Advice

My advice is simple. Embrace the experience. Prepare with the maximum of intention and preparation. Allow others to provide insights, feedback and support. Encourage yourself and others to grow through measured risk-taking and learn from the incremental mistakes that happen along the way. Assess what you knew before and what you’ve learned after the experience. Analyze the gap between them and then get better by mistake. Learn from the lessons of the adventure.


If you’d like to know where the “Einstein” quote may have originated, quote investigators offer this tidbit. The famous quote can be found in Rita Mae Brown’s 1983 novel Sudden Death. In the novel the main character, Jane Fulton, is a critical sports writer who contends “Modern professional sports rewards players for function instead of character.” Finally, after following the lives and careers of the players, and the game itself, she concludes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again but expecting different results.” This may not settle the origination argument, but it gets us closer to closing the mistake gap.

Also, in 1983 Samuel Beckett, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, offered a counterpoint perspective in his work “Worstward Ho”: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Perhaps the best lesson we can learn that will help us get better by mistake is to “fail better” with each attempt.

Please feel free to share this post with a friend or colleague. As always, share your comments on this post or suggestions in the comments section below.

To Your Speaking Success.
The Speech Wiz