It's been a while since we've checked in with Heraclitus, the enigmatic ancient Greek philosopher whom I consider to be the world's first "creativity teacher." Let's do so now. His thought for today is:
to its purpose with a whack."
Like all of Heraclitus' epigrams, this one can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I believe the creative strategy Heraclitus is advocating here is: "Embrace failure."
Like other walking animals, sometimes we need a good "whack on the side of the head" to get us focused on our purpose. One thing that "whacks" our thinking is failure — it jolts us out of our routines and forces us to look for fresh approaches.
Think about it: our error rate in any activity is a function of our familiarity with that activity. If we are doing things that are routine for us, then we will probably make very few errors. But if we are doing things that have no precedence in our experience or are trying different approaches, then we will be making our share of mistakes. Innovators may not bat a thousand — far from it — but they do get new ideas.
Errors serve a useful purpose: they tell us when to change direction. When things go smoothly, we generally don’t think about them. To a great extent, this is because we function according to the principle of negative feedback. Often it is only when things or people fail to do their job that they get our attention. For example, you are probably not thinking about your kneecaps right now. That’s because everything is fine with them. The same goes for your elbows: they are also performing their function — no problem at all. But if you were to break a leg, you would immediately notice all the things you could no longer do, but which you used to take for granted.
Negative feedback means that the current approach isn’t working, and it’s up to you to find a new one. We learn by trial and error, not by trial and rightness. If we did things correctly every time, we would never have to change course, and we’d end up with more of the same.
Indeed, most people don’t change when they “see the light.” They change when they “feel the heat.” A friend of mine who had been fired from a job told me: “Yeah, getting fired was really traumatic, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to come to grips with who I was as a person. I had to look at my strengths and weaknesses with no delusions at all. It forced me to get out of my box and scramble. Six months later, I was in a much better situation.”
The same is true for large institutions, associations, and organizations. After the supertanker Exxon Valdez broke open off of Alaska in the spring of 1989, thereby polluting the coast with millions of gallons of oil, the petroleum industry was forced to rethink and toughen up many of its safety standards regarding petroleum transport. The disintegration of the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) space shuttles caused a similar thing to happen at NASA. Similarly, the sinking of the Titanic (1912) led to the creation of the International Ice Patrol, and legally mandated iceberg reporting. The September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center forced architects to significantly raise their fire retardation standards in new high-rise building construction. The catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami forced world seismic monitoring authorities to change how they disseminate and share warning information.
We learn by our failures. Our errors are the "whacks" that lead us to “think something different.”
Question: Where have you benefited from a recent failure?