Jimmy Guterman's blog

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Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do (redux)

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Yes, I know I published this long post several months ago on my old blog. But, according to the WordPress dashboard, plenty of people are visiting this new blog looking for it. The posts from they old blog are not here yet, because I have yet to figure out how to make the Blogger-to-WordPress tool work. So, to satisfy those who might be interested, here it is. I gave a talk on “Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do” at the “university” part of TED in late February and delivered a (not as good) stripped-down version of it a week later at ETech. I was asked by several Jewels and Binoculars readers who weren’t at either event to post the presentation as a blog entry. Here it is. I recognize that a flat blog post doesn’t capture the experience of a live presentation, but I want to get the material out here. And, as an added benefit, you don’t have to look at or listen to me present it!

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Being here first thing in the morning, I feel like the opening act at the beginning of one of those long package shows of rock bands. I feel like Yngvie Malmsteen, a godawful heavy metal guitarist not often celebrated at TED.

Indeed, “Yngvie,” as we all know, is Swedish for “opening act.”

So here we go…

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I edit Release 2.0, an expensive newsletter, so I hear a lot from readers. Sometimes they’re looking for rules, some secrets to guarantee success. I want to justify their investment in the newsletter, of course, so I tell ‘em what I’ve learned.

And what I’ve learned is that they should screw up.

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While anyone who’s spent time with any of the members of Guns N Roses might find them to be screwups, the reason you haven’t heard anything new and substantial from them on the radio for 16 years — 16 years! — is that they’ve committed the opposite of screwing up: overplanning. Since the mid-’90s, by which time every original member of the band except singer Axl Rose had left for one reason or another, Guns N Roses has been working on a new album called Chinese Democracy.

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Rose and his co-conspirators have been thinking and recording Chinese Democracy for 14 years, gone through at least six producers, 17 band members, and $16 million in recording costs. It’s not out yet. They’ve waited so long, perfecting and planning, planning and perfecting, that the industry Axl Rose once ruled no longer exists. Democracy may arrive in China before Chinese Democracy arrives in record stores.

Oh — wait — there really aren’t record stores any more, either. Too much planning, too much process, means no art, no product, nothing.

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For a different approach, let’s consider the TV series Twin Peaks from the early ’90s. To refresh your memory…

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This man, Leland Palmer…

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…possessed by the spirit of a supernatural character named BOB…

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…turned his daughter, Laura Palmer…

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…into this.

But where did BOB, the conceptual lynchpin of the series, come to be? Surely he was there from the beginning.

No. His introduction into the series came as a result of an accident while the cameras were running.

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In a scene late in the Twin Peaks pilot, Laura Palmer’s mother experiences a vision while sitting on her living room couch. On the wall behind her, barely in the shot, there is a mirror. In the bottom corner of the mirror, there’s the reflection of Frank Silva, a set dresser on the crew, unaware he’s in the shot. You or I wouldn’t have noticed it unless we were looking for it — but on the set of a television show, there is someone whose job is to look for just such mistakes.

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After the take, that person alerted director David Lynch to the accident and began to set up a reshoot. Lynch stopped him. He spoke to Frank Silva, the set dresser in the mirror. “Can you act?” Lynch asked. This was Los Angeles, so you know the answer…

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…and the malevolent, mysterious character of BOB, the key to the weird mystery of the series, was born — from an accident.

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Many popular products, advances, and countless works of art have emerged from accidents. In the Internet world, we have Blogger and Twitter. And those two are just from one guy: Evan Williams.

Things may go better with Coke, but Coke was originally designed to go better with pain. It was intended to be a pain remedy.

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in 1928, Alexander Fleming, researching the flu, noticed that a mold had taken over one of his petri dishes. That mold, he saw, had stopped bacteria in the dish. Voila! Penicillin. Indeed, the very idea of vaccines was discovered by accident, when Edward Jenner noticed that people who worked with cows didn’t get smallpox.

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In 1894, John Harvey Kellogg left some cooked wheat to sit while he attended to some pressing matters at his sanitarium. When he returned, the wheat had gone stale. Because he was either cheap or broke — historians disagree — he tried to save the wheat by forcing it through rollers, expecting to get long sheets of dough he could use. Instead, he got … flakes. He toasted them. He served them to his patients. He got very, very rich.

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Post-It notes came to be by accident, too, but the story isn’t that interesting, so I’ll just mention it and keep going.

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This one’s more interesting. Fred Katz introduced the cello to modern jazz. One night in the late 1950s, during a break between sets while he was playing piano with a jazz band, Katz pulled a chair to the front of the stage and played some solo cello. When the rest of the band returned to the small stage, there was no room for Katz to return to his piano. Not sure what to do — the set was starting, the band was playing — Katz decided to play the piano lines on his cello. Out of his accident, his real, half-century-long, career began.

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Next time you enjoy some ferocious rock’n’roll encased in feedback, thank these guys. A spray of amplifier feedback at the beginning of The Beatles’ 1965 recording of “I Feel Fine,” an accident, sounded so unusual — and so great — that they kept it on the record. And, since I’m talking about brands favored by aging boomers…

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…Viagra was first thought to be a promising drug for angina. During 1992 clinical trials in a town in Wales, Pfizer researchers discovered that…

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…the drug had a different effect altogether.

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So mistakes can be great things. What do we do about ‘em? How do we harness ‘em? Well, if you’re the Harvard Business School, the font of management wisdom (and — disclosure — a client), you’re not quite sure. Sometimes they tell us to be afraid of mistakes…

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…sometimes they tell us we can manage accidents, thus making them not accidents. We might call this the Pee-Wee Herman “I meant to do that” theory of managing mistakes…

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..and, once, squeezed almost as an afterthought — or, maybe, an accident — as the very last entry in an issue of the Harvard Business Review, they celebrate it, thanks to a terrific, brief essay by Danny Hillis. I’m not trying to pick on Harvard. You can find similar advice from the other Ivy schools, even Stanford. But this is the conventional business wisdom. You can’t be built to last or go from good to great or whatever unless you’re careful to avoid mistakes, the thinking goes. Imagine the difference between the reaction if you tell your boss “I’m planning” and the one you get if you say, “I’m making mistakes.”

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Established institutions are in the business of supporting the status quo. And mistakes, if nothing else, go against the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the expected. As Esther Dyson used to sign her emails, “Always make new mistakes!” A key part of planning is being open to mistakes.

The unexpected kiss, the unpredictable punch line: they’re so much of what makes life worth living. Shouldn’t we let the unexpected into our business work as well? It’s by screwing up that we learn and discover. We can’t predict accidents. But we can take advantage of them.

You never know where a mistake is going to lead. Maybe nowhere, maybe somewhere. But it’s definitely nowhere if you don’t at least lean forward and peer down the road after you screw up.

You want the secret of success that my newsletter readers want to know? It’s no secret. It’s that, chances are, whatever you’re looking for — that’s not what you’re going to find.

Thank you.

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Written by guterman

June 3, 2008 at 11:05 am

Posted in worklife

5 Responses

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  1. [...] post from Jimmy Guterman — both for its content and its presentation. Love the funky, [...]

  2. [...] commencement speech and some commentary on it. Regular readers here know I’m interested in mistakes and failure. Part of Rowling’s section in her speech on what failure taught her struck me as worth [...]

  3. [...] there is a solution to that. As Jimmy Guterman writes in his blog: it’s by screwing up that we learn and discover. That means we just have to [...]

  4. Promising mistake right in the talk. It wasn’t Dr. J. H. Kellogg who got very, very rich from flaked cereal, it was his younger brother Will K. Kellogg. Dr. J. made some money in cereals, some in soy foods, and most in vegetarian hospitals. He and Will fell out over the cereal business, and Will moved out of his shadow into vast success.

    Now how can we monetize this error?

    mzanger

    May 3, 2009 at 10:55 pm

  5. [...] the January Wired, called “Fail! Why Losing Big Can Be a Winning Strategy.” Your editor has been interested in this topic for a long while and there may be nothing more universal in management than screwing up, so we read the report so [...]


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