Mistakes & Why They’re Not Wrong


Something very interesting happens when you paint with watercolors: mistakes. You can’t always control the flow of water. It lifts the paint and carries it somewhere you never thought to put it, often creating beautiful, serendipitous patterns. When that happens, two things cross my mind – do I let it run and see where it goes or do I stop it before it possibly destroys some other part of the painting?

The equivalent of that when I’m photoshopping is an immediate ‘Command Z’. Get rid of it. It’s a mistake and my thumb and forefinger hit those two buttons before any part of my conscious brain even processes what happened. Had I the time to let my photoshop mistakes play out, the outcome of my file would probably be wildly different (albeit never meeting any deadlines ever again.)

Technology has made the thought process of mistake to correction so fast, it’s changed the way we process (or not process) an error. We can get a lot more done in a very short amount of time, but is what we’re creating more or less creative because we can nip our mistakes in the bud? What happens when creation is a perfect, streamlined process with no wiggle room or the messiness of the unexpected?

We can find the answer to almost any question simply by typing in a url. Pre instant-information-era, we would have thought about different ways to answer that question, do research down several avenues and perhaps making up some ridiculous answers that while wrong, lead to other ideas. An article in The Atlantic a few years back posed the question ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?’ http://bit.ly/cXNeCU. Of course, they didn’t vilify Google specifically but used the name as a generic term to present the idea that our easy access to a giant brain with all the right answers means we tend to rely on our own brains less. It’s an interesting dilemma: on one hand, information propels a creative brain to ask more questions. On the other, it gives us an easy out. A friend who is an elementary school teacher recently told me her students rarely think for themselves or use their imaginations to ask ‘what if’. They simply run to their computers because they know the answers that bounce back will always be ‘right’.

Mistakes, however, can produce the parts that leads to a ‘correct’ answer later on. All of the messy thoughts that churns through a person’s brain is what makes the solutions we each propose unique. My brain filter will produce a different result than yours. A search engine, no matter how clever the searcher, will always produce a finite set of results. Whatever is created from someone’s brain filter is created for a reason, be it influenced by their past experiences, their current circumstances or simply what they had for lunch. There’s no ‘wrong’ in that – just perhaps not right right now. What mistakes create are working parts to be used later on. This article in WSJ.com touched on the idea that tinkering or using disparate ideas to play off of each other is the root of invention: http://on.wsj.com/bndB6s The article describes what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls ‘the adjacent possible’ or the idea that disparate ideas resting next to each other will create new combinations, which will then lead to other combinations. Not only is it a beautiful phrase, it celebrates the idea that creativity is a messy garage with unpredictable, often cobbled together parts of ideas rather than a linear factory. (Linear factory thinking, by the way, is what makes creatives clench up in a organized brainstorm.) Organized ‘creative time’ takes away the serendipity. It’s the messiness that is the elusive creative ‘magic’ that so many people keep trying to bottle up neatly.

So while we continue to tap into technology and rely on it, let’s not forget to fire up the most powerful machine we have: our brains. Lateral thought, leaps of thought, the ability to think through a problem and look for a solution under a rug verse searching for and getting an immediate answer is where truly different ideas will come from. Instead of depending on just one collective brain with all the right answers, let’s use our billions of individual messy brains and look for some possible answers. And make mistakes. A lot of them. So we can fill the garage with an endless, messy supply of materials and build something that doesn’t yet exist as a search result.

Article Info
Posted by: Caprice Yu
Thinking About: Creativity / Culture / Random / Technology
Location: NY, NY
Website: http://todayimade.posterous.com/
Twitter: @capricey
  1. Ciaran McCarthy

    Hey Caprice,

    Great article. Mistakes or failing is such an integral part of what we do that we definitely have to be aware of it. We need to make sure it doesn’t get removed by a stream lined production process or tight project management systems.

    Your article reminded me of this project Inframutt: http://www.reallymagazine.com/ifm/inframutt.htm. It sends you to the last search in google rather than the first, encouraging lateral searching and serendipitous discovery. A lovely, simple idea.

    • Caprice Yu

      Thanks Ciaran. Inframutt is awesome! Sometimes when starting a project, I punch in google search terms that come to mind and look at the images. The most random and often strangely related pics come up.

  2. Ciaran McCarthy

    Haha yes, but you have to be careful of that technique.I’ve done it myself without safe search on… not a good idea.

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