Fear to make a mistake, to fail, or to take a risk is perhaps the most
general and common emotional block in problem solving.
James L. Adams, Conceptual Blockbusting
Errors are…the portals of discovery.
James Joyce, Ulysses
Years ago, my five-year-old son was assigned to paint a school bus. When he came home that day from kindergarten, he had his school bus, which he had painted blue. Sprawled over his painting were his teacher’s comments: School buses are yellow! In red ink, of course.
I found this interesting for two reasons. First, I wondered if the teacher was familiar with Pablo Picasso’s “blue period” — or with Jim Morrison’s The End, for that matter. More practically, I observed that the majority of school buses in our community are, indeed, blue. Nonetheless, the teacher’s reprimand: School buses are yellow!
Yes, my son’s experience was extreme, but I suspect that most of us have had some similar experience growing up. We can all conjure up that painful memory of having offered an innovative solution or novel idea, only to be told that we were wrong or — worse — to be ridiculed or laughed at.
Consequently, we have been conditioned to seek the right answer and to expect a reward for it. The impacts of this conditioning are significant. We can become risk averse, prefer safe alternatives, reject novelty and sub-optimize.
Effective problem solving and decision-making requires that we embrace risk and accept the inevitable mistakes as learning opportunities. Our errors enrich us, opening portals through which we discover invigorating perspectives and flashes of insight. With each risk, we become more facile problem solvers, more dexterous decision-makers. We grow increasingly clever, agile and — if we keep at it long enough — wise.
This is a repost from January 16, 2013.