Mistakes Are Great
(The Secret to Creative Solutions)
Joel Saltzman

       Let's begin with a Reader Survey. Do you consider yourself:

a. Creative.
b. Not creative.

        If you answered "a," see if you don't recognize some of your own behavior patterns. If you answered "b," help is on its way.
       What "creative" people understand, better than anything, is that mistakes are great. Mistakes, in fact, are the currency of creativity. The more mistakes you make -- the more time and effort you're willing to spend -- the better your chances of success. I learned this lesson back in my twenties, when what I wanted most was to be a writer. Instead, I sentenced myself to five years of writer's block. It was agony, my personal Dark Ages. Instead of writing, I spent my time worrying, going to therapy and wondering if I'd one day finally have the courage to throw my typewriter out the window and myself right after it.
       Then one night, still in the throes of writer's block, I got a fortune cookie that saved my life. My fortune read:


       Not being a true believer in the Fortune Cookie School of Wisdom, I was about to toss my fortune aside and never think of it again. But there was something about those words that almost made sense to me.
       What if I did lower my expectations - really lowered them? What if I said to myself: "I don't care if it makes any sense or not. Whatever's in my head, I'm going to write it down."
       That night, I started writing again, the same way I'd started out as a kid - just for the hell of it. I was fooling around again, having fun on the page, finger painting with words and ideas. I didn't care how crazy, or wild or mistake-ridden it got. It got me going again and that's all that mattered.
And therein lies the secret to creative solutions. Whether you're creating a new product, working to solve a business problem, or trying to resolve a conflict with your children or spouse, what it takes is creativity -- and that means mistakes. Lots of 'em. As artist Chuck Close put it: "It's always wrong before it's right."

That's not it.
That's not it.
That's not it.
Hey, that's it!

       Some years ago, while in an airplane lavatory, I spotted two signs on the wall. The older sign read: "Please do not deposit anything other than toilet tissue in toilet." The newer sign, just below, read: "Depositing objects other than toilet tissue in toilet could result in airplane failure."
Which sign would you say was the better solution?

That's not it.
That's not it.
That's not it.
Hey, that's it!

       "Every strike," said slugger Babe Ruth, "brings me closer to the next home run." (In fact, the year Ruth hit his then record-breaking 60 home runs he also led the league in strike outs.)
The path to success is simple and clear:


      Expect, instead, to be willing to fail, rethink, revise and redirect. Constantly.
"It's not that I'm smart," opined a humble Albert Einstein, "it's just that I stay with the problems longer."
      In my own case, I learned to "stay with the problem" of writer's block until I stumbled upon the secret of my success: Having the freedom to make mistakes. Wrong turns, blind alleys, great ideas that don't pan out, and lousy ideas that sometimes do. I learned, eventually, to embrace my mistakes, knowing, like the Babe, that every strike, every crumbled piece of paper, would bring me that much closer to a real home run.
      What's required is courage -- having the fear that you may never solve that problem or find that solution -- but pursuing it nonetheless. Imagine your employer gave you a pair of dice and told you that in order to keep your job you had to roll a twelve. Your first reaction -- aside from the obvious question "Why?" -- might well be fear. How can I possibly guarantee I'll roll a twelve? What are the odds of that!? The odds, in fact, are 100%.
       That's right. 100%.
       All you have to do is keep rolling those dice until you get a twelve.

That's a six.
That's an eight.
That's a four.
That's a ten.
Hey, that's a twelve!

       Tim Gill, co-founder of Quark publishing software, says: "The only way you learn what works is to learn what doesn't work." In other words: Mistakes. Twenty years after founding Quark, Gill sold his share of the company for $500 million.
       Like to hit a home run, roll a twelve, or cash in your chips for $500 million? Roll up your sleeves, get to work, and start making mistakes.

Joel Saltzman is a speaker, facilitator and consultant who teaches people in business to Shake That Brain!® and discover solutions for maximum profit. Having cured himself of writer's block, he went on to write the best-selling book, If You Can Talk, You Can Write.
Joel's latest book, Shake That Brain!, will be published by Wiley in 2005.

Visit his website www.shakethatbrain.com/wow