Last week I went to the doctor for my annual physical and I admit that I do not look forward to the blood draw. Mainly I don’t like the “not eating breakfast” part, but the “stab your arm with a needle” part isn’t so great, either. This time I got my blood test results online. FINALLY! Online patient records are about 10 years too late if you ask me.  I’m happy to report that my cholesterol results were great. My bad cholesterol is down from last year and my good cholesterol is up! Must be all those salty nuts I ate over the holidays.

Just like cholesterol, mistakes can be good and bad. What you want is less of the bad ones and more of the good ones. I would state that a good mistake is anything that you can recover from (either physically, mentally, or financially). All too often we get into behavioral routines that create barriers to creativity.

  • Good mistakes can sometimes show us surprising things we would not have though of otherwise.
  • Good mistakes teach us how to avoid bad mistakes.
  • Good mistakes can still be painful, but if we can learn from them, we become stronger individuals.

In 1946, Percy Spencer, a scientist at Raytheon, was experimenting with a new kind of vacuum tube, a magnetron. When, to his surprise, a candy-bar melted in his pocket. Yikes! Luckily he was over 50 at the time and probably already had his 3 kids by then. Anyway, the next day he placed an egg next to the magnetron and it started vibrating. He went in for a closer look and it exploded and got all over his face. The microwave oven was born.

The dreaded cockle bush could make you into a millionaire.

Two years later, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral went for a hike and mistakenly walked through a grove of cockle-burrs. His socks and pants were covered with them. Upon his return home, cursing his predicament, he began the tedious process of removing them. Upon closer examination, he noticed thousands of tiny hooks on the burr that had clung to his fabric. 8 years later, after many experiments to refine his invention, he released the incredibly useful Velcro to the world.

There are many other examples of mistaken discoveries like these: Post-It notes, the Slinky, and gunpowder to name a few.

My mistakes generally do not have as profound results as these. Recently I was prototyping a stylized cloud effect for my game project. I went to export a particle texture and I apparently exported it at the wrong size. Huge, in fact! But when I ran the effect, it was actually kind of cool. It showed me a better way to build clouds.

It got me thinking that one of the big differences between an artist and an engineer is that an artist is free to make mistakes and is OK with it. They embrace play. Engineers strive to correct mistakes and avoid them in the future. This needs to change. Engineers need to play too. They need to think like artists to be creative.

To end this… a collection of interesting quotes on mistakes:

“The things which hurt, instruct.” – Benjamin Franklin

“The fellow who never makes a mistake takes his orders from one who does.” – Hebert Brocknow

“If silly things were not done, intelligent things would never happen.” – Tom Peters

“If you are very, very careful, nothing good or bad will ever happen to you.” – Dr. Robert Maurer

That last one sounds a bit “Finding Nemo-ish.”