Mistakes Fuel Creativity and Innovation

Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze - pottery scene in GhostIn the romantic pottery scene in the movie “Ghost” Molly (Demi Moore) is crafting a tall vase or pot, until Sam (Patrick Swayze) playfully interferes, and the pot collapses on the wheel. They don’t mind.

How do you think about mistakes or failures?

Many of us want to “get things right” and pursue excellence in creative work, but what seems like a setback, error or limitation, can often be valuable for encouraging more creative thinking and innovation.

Valerie Young writes about two “mistakes” that resulted in very successful products:

“Did you know, for example, that Post-It-Notes were the result of what 3M Company researchers at first thought to be a bad batch of glue?

teabag“Then there was Thomas Sullivan, a New York City tea importer who, in 1908, found that the sample tins of tea he normally sent to customers had become more expensive. His solution was to send less tea and to have the samples sewn into small silk bags.

“Sullivan’s customers assumed that these convenient bags were meant to steep in hot water and orders started rolling in for this new product innovation now known as the tea bag.”

From post Innovative Ideas May Be All “In Your Mind” by career change mentor Dr. Valerie Young on her Changing Course Blog.

In her article 18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently, Carolyn Gregoire writes, “Resilience is practically a prerequisite for creative success, says [psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman]. Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that sticks, and creatives — at least the successful ones — learn not to take failure so personally.”

A related example is provided by Jonathan Wai in one of his Creativity Post articles:

bridge-to-nowhere“Great scientists often can change a defect into an asset by turning a problem around.  Hamming explains at Bell Labs he wasn’t given the required human staff to write programs for the computers…From this limitation came his insight that the machines might be able to write programs themselves, which forced him into the field of automatic programming very early.

“If he had the ideal working conditions he initially desired, he might never have had this insight.”

From Eight Scientific Strategies To Improve Creativity By Dr. Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program.

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Fear can be tied to making mistakes

Stephenie Meyer at book signingPsychologist Robert Maurer notes, “You publish your first novel, does that make fear go away? No. So your skill at being able to nourish yourself and give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them is your single greatest attribute as an artist and as a human being.”

He also declares, “Fear is good. We view fear as a disease. It’s not a disease.”

From my article Developing creativity: Fear is not a disease.

[Photo: Novelist Stephenie Meyer (vampire romance series “Twilight”) at a book signing – from fanpop.com]

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Mistakes and Messes

In his online class How to Create Fearlessly, psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel provides strategies to help people create more freely and effectively.

One of ‘The Top 10 Big Ideas’ of the class:

“All day long we’re supposed to get things right: pay our bills, pick up our kids, and so on. It is very hard to move from this everyday mindset to a creative mindset where huge mistakes and messes are permitted and even welcomed.

“You may understand in your mind that the creative process comes with mistakes and messes but you must accept this truth in your body!”

Another point Dr. Eric Maisel addresses:

“The reality of process is that not everything you create will turn out well. You must accept this reality and learn the necessary dance of attachment and detachment. Maintain your dreams, desires, and ambitions for your creative work while at the same time accepting that only a percentage of what you attempt will prove successful!”

In this video, Maisel talks about those ideas, and about shifting our mindset.

He describes a strategy which he details in his book “Ten Zen Seconds: Twelve Incantations for Purpose, Power and Calm.”

You can also read more about the calming technique in my interview with him: Ten Zen Seconds for Purpose, Power and Calm.

From my post How Can We Create More Confidently?


Ed Catmull, the cofounder of Pixar, commented in an article about responding to mistakes or business decisions that turn out to be less than successful.

“Right now, since Disney Animation has Frozen, which has a shot at becoming a billion-dollar movie, they’re elated.

Pixar from aerogrammestudio“Meanwhile, at Pixar, after a lot of work we’ve had to say, ‘You know, Good Dinosaur doesn’t meet our standards, so we’re going to restart. It’s a promising idea, but we need to rethink the team.’

“That’s painful, but it’s a pain we own. Every time we make a mistake there is pain, and I’m acutely aware that some people bear more pain than others [some 50 people were recently laid off].

“But our core belief is that we’ve got to do the right thing for the movies.”

From Fast Company article: Ed Catmull On Why Things Will Always Go Wrong—Even At Pixar.

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter ran Pixar together for over two decades. The article is an excerpt from the book: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull, with Amy Wallace.

[Image of Pixar from article: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.]

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It may not be so easy for many of us to “accept” messes and imperfection – which could limit our ability to make use of those forms of “chaos” that Eric Maisel and others say can help develop creativity.

Writer Peter Sims explains: “Breaking free from perfectionism isn’t easy, largely because of how we’re raised and taught. We’re rewarded and loved by parents, teachers, and mentors for getting good grades, accomplishing athletic achievements, or getting into a great school or job.

Gwyneth Paltrow“The problem with that approach to praise and reward is that it builds up our resistance to doing anything that’s less than perfect. And since being imperfect, and being willing to make mistakes in order to discover new paths, opportunities and approaches is essential to any creative process.”

Peter Sims is an entrepreneur and author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.

His quotes are from the Goop blog post Perfect – which starts off with a comment by the blog’s founder Gwyneth Paltrow: “Striving for achieving a sense of perfection has been a misguided belief in my life, often leading me down the wrong path. It has made me, at times, place value on the wrong things.”

That idea of “placing value on the wrong things” is a helpful insight, it seems to me; being overly concerned or obsessed with aspects or details of a creative task may make us lose perspective of the larger endeavor.

Other actors have commented about this urge to be perfect:

Jennifer Connelly has admitted, “I am an obsessive-compulsive and a perfectionist. I don’t say it with pride.”

Bridget Fonda has said, “I’m afraid of making a mistake. I’m pretty neurotic about it.”

Emma Watson commented, “Now what I have worked out is that it would actually be physically impossible to be perfect for everyone.”

> From article: Actors and perfectionism.

Watson also talks about impostor feelings, which can be part of the fear of failing or making mistakes:

“It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.”

> From article: Getting beyond impostor feelings.

Ashley Judd memoirAshley Judd had a “chaotic” and “dysfunctional” childhood, including sexual abuse, and says she compensated by becoming a “hyper-vigilant child” who was “faultless in every way” according to a 2006 interview article, which noted “Judd learned that she was using sleep to deal with uncomfortable feelings and that her habit of wiping down plastic surfaces on planes and hotels was all about control.

She said: “I try to remind myself that if I engage in perfectionism, I am abusing myself.”

She also reported, “I was unhappy, and now I’m happy. Now, even when I’m having a rough day, it’s better than my best day before treatment.”

From article: Ashley Judd: “If I engage in perfectionism, I am abusing myself.”

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Writer, organizational consultant, and former psychotherapist Anne Wilson Schaef, PhD would agree with Judd, and explains:

“Perfectionism is one of the characteristics of addiction. Perfectionism is setting up an abstract, external ideal of what we should be or what we should be able to do that has little or no relationship to who we are or what we need to do and then trying to mold ourselves into that ideal… Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”

From her book Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.

Executive coach Frank Faeth says “perfectionists lose sight of the difference between ‘a minor mistake versus a major error’ and often motivate themselves via self-criticism.”

From his post Coaching Perfectionists.

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Brené Brown points out “The quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting, but as hard as we try, we can’t turn off the tapes that fill our heads with messages like ‘Never good enough’ and ‘What will people think?’ Why, when we know that there’s no such thing as perfect, do most of us spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to be everything to everyone?”

From my article Perfectionism and Brene Brown on The Gifts of Imperfection.

The virtues of perfectionism

It’s also a matter of how we think of the label and concept of “perfectionism” – “Avatar” director James Cameron retorted about being called a perfectionist: “No, I’m a greatist. I only want to do it until it’s great.”

– From my article Positive Obsessions To Be Creative.

Psychologist Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. declares: “Perfectionism has taken a bum rap. Were it not for perfectionism, we would be in short supply of all those myriad human activities we deem extraordinary, excellent, outstanding or great in quality.”

Jerry BruckheimerJerry Bruckheimer [right] “is a consummate filmmaker.. because you know that you are always going to get 120% from Jerry on anything that he does. He is a relentless perfectionist who never allows a single detail to go by without notice. I don’t think it is any great mystery that he has been so successful: He works harder than anybody else.” Walt Disney Studios chairman Richard Cook. [Hollywood Reporter, Nov. 17, 2003]

– From my post Striving for excellence: “Perfectionism has taken a bum rap.”

This is another “big” topic – see list of articles on perfectionism.

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Being perfectionistic or fearing mistakes can impact healthy self concept and esteem and be self-limiting in other ways.

We Are All Weird bookDo you ever have thoughts like these? :

* I’m not competent. Nothing I do is good enough.
* Mistakes and failure are bad. If I make a mistake I’ll be rejected.
* What makes me good enough and important is doing things perfectly.

Belief change coach and writer Morty Lefkoe notes those kinds of self-limiting messages or beliefs may be so common that people think they are “part of human nature” – but he declares they are not:

“All these psychological responses are the result of beliefs and conditioning formed early in our lives. Thus, all can be totally eliminated.”

You can use his approach The Lefkoe Process to eliminate a negative belief free at his site ReCreate Your Life.

The ‘dunce’ image is from a Seth Godin book: We Are All Weird – from article How To Change “Human Nature” By Morty Lefkoe.

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Learning from mistakes

In an interview with Guy Kawasaki on her blog, Stanford professor Tina Seelig noted, “When I was twenty I beat myself up whenever I made a mistake. I thought that I had to do things correctly the first time and spent a lot of time agonizing about what I should have done.

“In fact, if you aren’t making mistakes, then you aren’t taking enough risks. I was comfortable taking risks, but wasn’t comfortable with the inevitable failures along the way. Now I realize that mistakes are part of the learning process. Now when I make a mistake, I add it to my “failure resume” and figure out what I should do differently the next time.”

Seelig writes about Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the co-founders of Instagram, who had “originally started a company called Burbn that made an iPhone app that let users share their location with friends.

“The initial product was a disappointment, so they kept adding features to see if they could increase interest. One of their experiments involved the ability to take photos, edit them quickly, and post them immediately for others to see. That feature was a huge hit, leading to a million users in two short months. Kevin and Mike decided to scrap their initial product altogether and focus entirely on photo sharing, launching a new company called Instagram.

“These remarkable young men would never have reached their current milestones if they hadn’t had the skills, motivation, and confidence to push beyond the waves of unsuccessful experiments to ultimately find a product that engaged their customers.”

From her article Creativity: The Elephant in the Room by Tina Seelig.

Seelig is Executive director, Stanford Technology Ventures Program, and author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity.

In her book she refers to a research study which “found that those people who believe they can learn from their errors have different activity in their brains in response to mistakes than people who think intelligence is fixed. Jason Moser and his colleagues at Michigan State found that those individuals who think intelligence is malleable say things such as “When the going gets tough, I put in more effort” or “If I make a mistake, I try to learn and figure it out.”

video: A crash course in creativity: Tina Seelig at TEDxStanford


What is “correct” may depend on the kind of work

Sarah LewisAuthor Sarah Lewis quotes artist and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard P. Feynman about teaching science and art: In physics, Feynman said, “we have so many techniques — so many mathematical methods — that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, ‘Your lines are too heavy,’ because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines.”

Lewis comments: “In that moment, the art student is learning the validity of their choices, their own direction, and innovative results.”

From her article Scientists aren’t the only innovators! We really need artists, Salon, Mar 10, 2014.

Sarah Lewis is author of The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery.

[Photo from sarahelizabethlewis.com]

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Embrace failing

Anthony MeindlAnthony Meindl reminds us to “realize that all parts of yourself are what make you uniquely you.

“Stop apologizing for your mistakes. Make them. Fail gloriously. Attempt things boldly. Live on the edge spectacularly. Slide into errors magnificently. Nothing bad comes from failing. Ever. Our challenges in life really come when we have a desire for something and are too scared to attempt it in fear of failing.

“Fail. You’re going to anyway. So just do it with robust passion for that journey which is uniquely yours.”

From his post (on his Actor Workshop site) How To Prepare For The Role Of A Lifetime.

One of the Actor Testimonials on his site relates to this:

Shailene WoodleyShailene Woodley (“The Descendants”; “Divergent”) :

“Coming to class for me isn’t just about letting loose and growing my ability as an actor but more sometimes to really open up myself to the Universe and just be.”

Anthony Meindl is a writer, producer, director, actor and acting teacher, and author of the books:

Alphabet Soup for Grown-Ups: 26 Ways to Not Worry (Really!), Be Happy (Truly!), and Get Over Yourself (Finally!).

At Left Brain Turn Right: An Uncommon Path to Shutting Up Your Inner Critic, Giving Fear the Finger & Having an Amazing Life!

See video of Meindl reading the famous quotes of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate…” in my article Living and Creating: Fear Is Not A Disease.

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Impermanence and change

“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.” – Buddhist nun Pema Chodron

[From page: Mindfulness, Buddhism, meditation impermanence, suffering.]

[One of her books: Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change.]

The Sand Mandala is a concrete expression of letting go of permanence, which can be attached to our urge for perfection.

This Tibetan Buddhist tradition involves designing an exquisitely detailed mandala pattern made from colored sand, then it is “ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.” [Wikipedia page]

video: Construction and destruction of a sand Mandala by the Dalai Lama, from Werner Herzog documentary “Wheel of Time”

Some final quotes on “mistakes” – from a Sounds True interview and with Buddhist mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield, on Difficult Times and Liberation.

“One Zen master said that strictly speaking a Zen master’s life is one continuous mistake. It’s not about failure. We always are making mistakes. That is to say, one circumstance to learn from after another. This is life.”

One of his books: Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are, by Jack Kornfield, with Foreword by Dr. Daniel Siegel.

[Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, MD is author of books including “Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation” – see listing on my page: Emotional Health Resources.]

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> How do you relate to mistakes and perfectionism?


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Article publié pour la première fois le 13/03/2014


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