The Importance of Mistakes
by John Cleese

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Throughout my childhood, guided missiles enchanted me in a way that normally only ugly ducklings or pirates or talking vermin enchant a child. In fact, the first nursery story I ever remember my mother reading to me was Gordon the Guided Missile. Let me explain why the guided missile found this special, warm place in my heart.

Gordon the guided missile sets off in pursuit of its target. It immediately sends out signals to discover if it is on the right course to hit that target. Signals come back: “No, you are not on course. So change it. Up a bit and slightly to the left.” And Gordon changes course as instructed and then, rational little fellow that he is, sends out another signal. “Am I on course now?” Back comes the answer, “No, but if you adjust your present course a bit further up and a bit further to the left,m you will be.” He adjusts his course again and sends out another request for information. Back comes the answer, “No, Gordon, you’ve still got it wrong. Now you must come down a bit and a foot to the right.” And the guided missile goes on and on making mistakes, and on and on listening to feedback and on and on correcting its behavior until it blows up the nasty enemy thing. And we applaud the missile for its skill. If, however some critic says, “Well, it certainly made a lot of mistakes on the way”, we reply, “Yes, but that didn’t matter, did it? It got there in the end.” All its mistakes were little ones, in the sense that they could be immediately corrected. And as a results of making many hundreds of mistakes, eventually the missile succeeded in avoiding the one mistake which really would have mattered: missing the target.

I suggest that unless we have a tolerant attitude towards mistakes -- I might almost say a positive attitude towards them -- we shall be behaving irrationally, unscientifically, and unsuccessfully.

Of course there are true copper bottomed mistakes, like spelling the word “rabbit” with three m’s, or wearing a black bra under a white blouse, or, to make a more masculine example, starting a land war in Asia.

But I’m talking about mistakes which, at the time they were committed, did have a chance. The problem may be linguistic -- we don’t have a good word for “a reasonable try which didn’t come off.”

All of which ties in with my experience of what makes a group function more creatively. People must lose their inhibitions. They must gain the confidence to contribute spontaneously to what’s happening. Inhibition arises because of the fear of looking foolish, the fear of making mistakes. People are held back by this fear; they go over each thought they have six times before expressing it, in case someone will think it’s “wrong.” While this is going on, nothing useful can happen creatively.

A positive attitude towards mistakes will allow them to be corrected rapidly when they occur. We all know that when we and our colleagues admit our mistakes, it’s comparatively easy to put them right. The problems come when mistakes are denied. If you don't acknowledge a mistake, you can’t correct it.

--Excerpted from the speech “The Importance of Mistakes.”