MISTAKES – THE MILESTONES TO SOLUTIONS

“It’s not how we make mistakes, but how we correct them that defines us.” UNKNOWN

Mistakes are essential to growing ideas. You don’t want to make mistakes deliberately, but you can’t find a breakthrough solution without them. Mistakes are evidence that you are pushing the boundaries of your solution. We do things perfectly when we have done them before. We make mistakes when we are trying some- thing new. Einstein Thinking requires experiments to succeed, and so it requires mistakes. If everything you try succeeds, you are extremely conservative in your thinking.

It took many mistakes for Paul Cuffe, a poor African American living in colonial America, to become the proud owner of a fleet of merchant ships. Pirates captured Cuffe’s first boat. He lost the second when he couldn’t sell the cargo. But Cuffe learned from every mistake. His third boat was the first of numerous successes. Many ships and mistakes later, Paul Cuffe had his own fleet.

Try as many experiments as possible to make your solution work. You will generate lots of Chris Concepts. From one of those failures will come success. Record each trial and what you learned to be sure you make enough mistakes to succeed.

Experiments are a good way to sift through all that is useless about an idea and extract the valuable solution. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium amounted to sifting through tons of rock to refine the tiny quantity of radium they believed must be there. Besides winning the Curies a Nobel Prize, the discovery of radium was crucial to many other advances—including some by Einstein—that depended upon a reliable source of radiation.

Intellectually, we know that it is OK to make mistakes. Avoiding mistakes is avoiding progress. But because mistakes are painful, embarrassing, and expensive, we still try to avoid making them. To grow your infant idea into a strong solution, you must make lots of mistakes. Get over your aversion to error. You will be able to make more mistakes if you learn to minimize the pain or to ignore the anguish when you do make a mistake.

Thought Experiments

“Experience, the name men give to their mistakes.”

OSCAR WILDE

Einstein loved thought experiments. He was almost seriously hurt pushing the mechanical limits of a student experiment, so he chose to perform later tests in the safety of his mind. Einstein created mental problems to explore ideas. These experiments were often fanciful, like riding a beam of light or manually separating two sub- atomic particles. Both of these tasks are impossible, but Einstein learned much by thinking through the implications of each.

Thought experiments allow you to test an idea without expense or embarrassment. Everything is confined to your head. You don’t fall, lose the children’s college fund, or look like a fool, but you can still learn much about your solution.

Thought experiments should be bold. They are most enlighten- ing at the extremes. A good thought experiment applies the solution to the whole world or to one individual. It assumes infinite resources or no resources. If you were looking for a way to cut assembly costs by 10 percent, your thought experiment should focus on cut- ting costs by 100 percent. How would you eliminate all assembly costs? You could buy the components assembled, mold the whole assembly as a unit, or eliminate the need for the unit. Your solutions don’t need to be completely realistic. But as you work through the extreme problem, you will learn much.

Create a thought experiment to test your idea. Imagine an extreme situation involving the new concepts that you have been working with. Identify the issues you must address to make your solution work in this situation. “Observe” what happens as you per- form your experiment. Solve the problems that arise any way you can. Make your mistakes in this painless environment, and use the confidence you gain from working out the extreme cases to make a real trial of your idea.

Ego, Mistakes, and Progress

“There is only one road to human greatness: through the school of hard knocks.” ALBERT EINSTEIN

It is hard to think of Dr. Albert Einstein, one of history’s most brilliant minds, as a smart aleck kid. But he was. He cut class, made fun of his professors, and violated school rules. His impudent stunts set his edu- cation and career back years. Einstein made these mistakes because he had a big head. He knew that he was much smarter than anyone else was. He went head-to-head with the authorities even when he was guaranteed to lose, driving everyone from teachers to Nazis wild with rage. Einstein suffered for it, but he knew he was right.

I am not suggesting it is a good idea to insult the professor whose recommendation is essential to getting the job you want (yes, Einstein did that) or to get yourself expelled from the country (Herr Doctor did that too). But that is the right frame of mind. To grow your solution and endure the mistakes that are a natural by-product, you need a bigger ego.

Making mistakes will be embarrassing. It can hurt. It can cost you money. You must feel clever enough, powerful enough, and sure enough of ultimate success that the mistakes you make along the way won’t bother you. This may require some practice. Here is an exercise to prepare you for making those vital mistakes.

Heroic Solutions

“Your success is not final—nor is your failure.”

GEORGE MATTHEW ADAMS

Superheroes can do anything. It may be difficult. They may be wounded while the world teeters on the brink of total disaster, but they will succeed.

To build some Einstein-sized confidence, imagine that you are your favorite comic-book hero. You have enormous power. You can do anything. Of course, you pose as a mild-mannered, average guy to your family and friends, but they should be worshipping the ground you walk on. You don’t mind. That’s the kind of guy or gal you are—the most powerful, brilliant, humble person on the planet.

Visualize how your favorite comic-book hero would solve your problem. It is OK to use excessive force—blow away those obsta- cles. Use your superior intellect, strength, or technology to cut directly through to a solution. Be melodramatic. Revel in the glory of your accomplishment. If you make mistakes, so what? You will triumph in the end.

Would a superhero like you worry about making a few mistakes? Breaking a few windows? Smashing up a city or two? No! The problem must be solved. It is OK to make a few mistakes along the way. It comes with the superhero territory. Carry that attitude into growing your solution.

Daily Risk

“A good plan violently executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.” GEORGE PATTON

Einstein and his colleagues debated a thought experiment involving a cat in a box devised by Erwin Schrodinger—Schrodinger’s cat. Inside the box was a device that would kill the cat when a radioac- tive particle decayed. The time of the decay could not be fixed in time, so the only way to know if the cat was alive was to look. The thought experiment demonstrated that some outcomes cannot be predicted until they happen.

This is true of ideas. It is hard to predict if an idea will work until you try it, then try it in a different way, then try it again. You must try new things to grow solutions. For the next four weeks, try a new twist to your solution each day. Every day, do a thought experiment or actual trial of some new way to implement your solution. You will make lots of mistakes, but you will also make much progress. Here are examples of daily risks taken selling a movie script.

Even when you are not working on a solution, it helps to build a habit of trying new things. Put yourself in a situation where failure is possible. There are all kinds of novel things to try. Community theater, a different radio station, or a new restaurant are small risks. If you haven’t exercised your artistic talent lately, try drawing or sculpting a friend or singing a well-known song very loudly. Doing either in public is a particularly good risk-taking exercise. Every day that you try something new, mark it down on the chart. Let’s see how adventurous you can be.

SOLUTIONS FROM IDEAS

“One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.” JOHN STUART MILL

Once Einstein and an assistant needed a paper clip. All they could find was a single bent paper clip. Einstein proceeded to try and straighten it, but he needed a tool. He and the assistant searched the office again. This time they found a box of paper clips. Einstein took a paper clip from the box and bent it into a tool to straighten the first paper clip. The assistant asked why Einstein was bothering to repair the paper clip now that they had a whole box. Einstein responded, “Once I am set upon a goal it becomes difficult to deflect me.”

That is the determination needed to develop great solutions. It will take time and effort to turn a good idea into an answer. You will probably need to break your rules again and again to solve the new problems that will arise while you are solving the first one. Ultimately, you may even need to concede that you have hit a dead end and start again.

Starting over with a new solution is often an important part of problem solving. It is so critical that we should recognize it for what it really is—reassessing the problem anew in light of what was learned from the last attempt at a solution. Even when you’re starting over, you are making progress.

A failed solution may always become a Chris Concept that will be successfully applied to something other than your original target problem. John Wesley Hyatt invented a roller bearing that he knew was perfect for the wheels of railroad cars. It was, but railroads weren’t interested. Oiled rags seemed to be working just fine as railroad wheel bearings. Since the only significant wheeled industry wasn’t buying, Hyatt sold his business to a young man named Alfred Sloan and went on to other successes. Sloan sold the roller bearings to the infant automotive industry, which needed rugged wheel bearings to cope with rutted roads. He made a fortune supplying Henry Ford before he broke a few other rules and ended up dominating the automobile industry as head of General Motors.

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