Making Mistakes Means You're Doing Things

November 2, 2022 • #

I talk all the time about trial and error. The freedom to let yourself make mistakes, and the skill to make sure they’re not too destructive, are superpowers. With every interesting innovation, company, or product, you’re seeing the late stage of a long chain of missteps and failure. As long as you have the right mindset, mistakes are learning.

We talk about this as a product team — short cycles, iteration, feedback loops — ways to navigate toward broader visions while surviving and building something increasingly useful along the way. I also talk about it with the kids. The more you practice hitting off the tee the better you’ll get at hitting the ball. The more you draw pictures the better you get at it. Practice through the frustration. I try to reinforce with them that everyone that’s great at something got their through an incredible volume of failure and shortcoming before the skill you see today.

Wooden sofa

If you’ve ever built anything physical, like woodworking, crafting, or DIY stuff around the house, you’ll be familiar with making mistakes, often costly ones. There’s no frustration quite like taking a furniture workpiece you’ve glued up from other parts, honed, mortised, and sanded and making a miter in the wrong place, or cutting it down to length too short. Hours and hours of work can vaporize in a second. I’ve made project mistakes like this so many times, and each time there’s a part of you that wants to put it all down and just go turn on Netflix. But great creators are made by their ability to recover from these mistakes — both in the tactical methods to fix them and the mental drive to “just fix it” and power through.

Mistakes are where most of the learning is in the creative process. It’s not only through the feedback loop of trial and error either. The more mistakes you make and navigate through, the better you get at accommodating and recovering from them.

My grandfather was a hobbyist woodworker for much of his life, cranking out hundreds of heirloom pieces over the years. If you ever asked him about making mistakes, he used to say “making mistakes means you’re doing things.” No person is immune from error. By definition, if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t really doing anything. Or maybe nothing interesting or challenging.