Limitations and Mistakes

download-2What would you be proud to read on your gravestone? Judging by the advertised efforts of many people’s lives, I imagine that some would like to see,

          At least 
        I didn't make 
        any mistakes

If I found such an inscription, I’d be tempted to add the graffiti,

e x c e p t  d y i n g,  o b v i o u s l y

How well we’ve all been taught to believe that mistakes are bad! “Oh, only 98%?” asks the kindly father of a conscientious student; “What about the other 2%?” “How can I best help?” thinks the teacher, “Oh, point out all the mistakes, obviously.”

In the face of such criticism, we learn to blame others, to reason our way out of difficulties and especially to invent fine excuses (even to ourselves). Politicians and company bosses never make mistakes, have you noticed? Wouldn’t you love to hear a politician put their current intelligence and wisdom down to the number of mistakes they’ve made getting there rather than parrot the only too familiar, “I’ve done nothing wrong”?

A young artist I know has set himself the challenge of creating a daily ink drawing without correction – whatever he sets down on the page stays. His method is producing some beautiful images. Sometimes a ‘mistake’ is used to take his design in a different direction from the original idea, often resulting in something superior to his original plan. So his deliberate self-limitation in not correcting mistakes actually aids his creativity.

Wonderful inventions sometimes occur after a mistake or disaster, when a scientist allows his creativity free rein. The chance discovery of penicillin through a petri dish culture growth that “went wrong” is well known. A more rigid mind would have missed the clue in the “failed” experiment.

An engineer working for Canon thoughtlessly put his soldering iron down on his pen and then, as the pen heated up, ink squirted out of the nib. Instead of annoyance, he foresaw the invention of the inkjet printer.

Viagra was developed to treat patients with angina. When the scientists noticed its famous effect during trials, instead of cursing an unwanted by-product, they envisaged a new use. It is now the most popular medication in the US for treating impotence.

Creative people don’t mind mistakes, and even welcome limitations. If an artist finds himself with only chalk and slate, or sand on a tidal beach, he makes use of what he has, not as a limitation but as an opportunity. In fact, limitations excite the artist’s creative mind, and provoke fresh ideas. Being given the challenge to fit a poetic idea into fourteen lines or a painting into a limited palette helps the unconscious in its creativity. Even a tight deadline gets the juices going. An unsolved problem or impasse pump-primes the process. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Some of the stories are inspiring. The Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari, whose violins are still considered the very best 300 years after his death, made some amazing violins from seeing possibility in discarded broken waterlogged oars he found in the docks in Venice.

The creators of prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in France used natural shapes and imperfections in the rock face as features of their designs. Sculptors are stimulated to use faults in natural marble and wood as essential parts of the form.  The great Japanese painter Hakuin’s simple O painted with a single rapid brush stroke arouses more passion in the beholder than any perfect circle.

Mistakes in work throw up new possibilities. A successful film-maker interviewed on a radio programme recently suggested that his tight budget had been a blessing in disguise. He said, “If you have money you order from a list, if not, you have to think of new ways to make things happen.”

One of the best places to find creative mistakes is in improvisation. J S Bach, Mozart and Leonardo Da Vinci were all brilliant musical improvisers. Musicians who improvise use inevitable “mistakes” to create a new pattern or direction. There’s no going back; so they make the way forward more exciting and interesting by using what happened by mistake as an integral part of their design, going with whatever happens. You might even call impro the art of “going with”. In dramatic improv, some of the most gloriously funny episodes emerge from “mistakes”.

In film too: in one take of a scene in the film On the Waterfront, the actress dropped her glove by mistake. Marlon Brando picked it up and, carrying on talking to her, put the glove on his much larger hand. The action was so unthinking and meaningful that the scene became famous as an example of brilliant spontaneity.

A novelist plans his story, and then at a certain point his fictional characters refuse to fit the mould he has planned for them and begin to take on a life of their own. At this point, the wise novelist gives up rigid control of his plan and goes with the direction the characters are taking. The book then opens up into something more interesting and exciting than the writer could have imagined beforehand.

Stephen Nachmanovich, author of one of my favourite books, Free Play, writes:

Looking out, now, over the ocean, the birds, the vegetation, I see that absolutely everything in nature arises from the power of free play sloshing against the power of limits.

SO why, why, why do we beat ourselves up about mistakes? Why do we (well, why does the media) insist that no person in public life can make a mistake, that what he or she said in 1992 cannot gainsaid by any later accumulation of wisdom. This is madness in full light of day. And we go along with it.

What distresses me most is the extent to which we hold ourselves back. I hate to make mistakes. How many times have I inhibited myself, not spoken up, not volunteered, not made a leap in the dark, to avoid making a mistake? Far too many, I fear. And I fill that scary space of lost opportunity with busy business and items of mundane importance, and a thousand excellent reasons (I’ve got SO good at reasons!) for my lack of action.

I’m not going to criticise myself for it. There’s been too much self-criticism. But I am going to shine a bit of light on the fear that others taught me long ago. Fear, you are a useful feeling, but I’ve set the trip switch needlessly low. Time to change that I think.

I like David Whyte’s words on the subject:

Let my history then
be a gate unfastened
to a new life
and not a barrier
to my becoming.

Also the down-to-earth words of Oscar Wilde,

Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.

The only things one never regrets are ones mistakes? Wow! In that case, what really good mistakes can you make today? Or, to put it another way, what might you do today if you absolutely knew that nothing you did could possibly be a mistake? Absolutly NUTHIN?

What might you not do?!

Go well!




I haven’t asked before, but if you’ve ready any of my books and enjoyed it, I’d be very happy if you’d write a review on Amazon – short as you like!

If you haven’t read them, I hope you find them useful. Here they are with their Amazon blurbs – available in print and e-versions:

Voice of Influence
– How to Get People to Love to Listen to You

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Should be on the reading list of anyone who wants to learn how to communicate 
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Butterflies and Sweaty Palms
– 25 Sure-Fire Ways to Speak and Present with Confidence

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Change Your Life with Confident Communication

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Download some of my E-courses

(I never share your email with anyone):

10 Secrets for Overcoming Performance Anxiety
How to Speak with More Authority
Understanding NLP
10 Tips for Having a Great Conversation


Feeling stuck? Need a nudge? Decision time? A few simple conversations with a coach can be life changing and worth the investment many times over. Email me or call me on 01306 886114 if you want an initial conversation about what coaching might do for you.

The Miracle of Voice

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