Learn From Your Mistakes, Never Regret Them.
“To swear off making mistakes is easy. All you have to do is swear off having ideas.” Leo Burnett
I learned the other week that I made a grave error in my article “The Inefficiency of Words.” A reverend cruising Medium told me my use of “all” was irritating. “No one can speak for ‘all’,” he wrote me, “and those who do are guilty of being delusional and annoying.”
Boy, I hate being delusional and annoying. I wanted to send the reverend a cake or something. I’m not in the habit of irritating people of the faith — even ecumenical ones. Then again, if I hadn’t used “all” in the first place, I wouldn’t have realized how easy it is to piss off a reverend.
Not that I enjoy pissing off reverends, but we’re always in a fight club of sorts when we write or have ideas. Either we accept the consequences, or do what Leo Burnett suggested: Swear off having ideas entirely.
Judging from the advertising I see today, most people — agencies and marketing departments included — have decided on the latter. Even Volkswagen turned off the creative taps with their “That feeling, only better,” giving new meaning to “Think Small.” It represents the worst of advertising, the cloying, forgettable nonsense you thought only North American car manufacturers could produce without feeling guilty about it.
Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have never felt guilty. They don’t answer to consumers, they answer to dealers. Any time you feel like screaming at a car commercial, blame them. They don’t care if you’re entertained. They’ve got inventory. They want to move it. Your opinion is about as worthless as the floor mats they install as standard equipment.
In fact, if we believe Socrates, most of us are worthless since, as he says “Worthless people live only to eat and drink.” He said that long before technology, of course. Today, worthless people eat, drink, and know more about their roaming rates than they do about their wives.
So, if we’re so worthless, should we still have ideas? Aren’t we putting ourselves out there for no reason at all? And why do something regrettable when you can do something forgettable?
Because, according to Albert Einstein, we can’t advance without making mistakes. He made plenty, by the way. His Theory of Relativity had errors in all seven of his derivations, which had to be corrected by other physicists. Yet he still stuck to this belief: If we’re not prepared to fail, we won’t succeed. Since he succeeded, it stands to reason he failed, too.
Mistakes are okay, in other words. In fact, researchers at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found that mistakes actually make our brains feel good. Supposedly, if we make a mistake and learn from it, this triggers the brain’s “reward circuit.” You get the same endorphin rush you do with, well, sex.
So regretting your mistakes — or avoiding them altogether — is like giving up an orgasm. That’s probably why elderly people complain about not having done enough with their lives. Nearing the end, they realize they could have had more orgasms if they’d made more mistakes.
In Joseph T Hallinan’s book “Why We Make Mistakes,” he explains it even further. We all have biases which make us quick to judge and equally quick to think we’re right. Our mistakes come from us believing we’re on the correct path. When we’re not, we swear we’ll never do anything that stupid again.
In a way, it’s part of fight or flight. We’re preconditioned to see danger and avoid it in the future. So if, say, a client doesn’t like an idea, it’s part of our survival instinct to classify it as a mistake.
The trick, as Einstein realized, is not to regret mistakes, but to see them as part of a continuing process of reaching a goal. If that fires up our “reward circuit” and gives us an orgasm, all the better. Who knows? Maybe people who dwell on their mistakes are having the best orgasms ever.
I remember coming back from a meeting where the client didn’t buy our ideas. The account team prepared a summary essentially telling us we’d goofed. “I think it goes without saying, “the account director wrote, “that we can’t afford mistakes like that again. We’re too close to the wire on this one.”
If every idea that isn’t accepted is a mistake or a goof, what’s the motivation for creatives? I mean, we can only have so many orgasms before we start feeling cheap. Once that happens, we’ll believe anything is a mistake.
In his book, “George, Be Careful,” George Lois describes an account director who hated his work. When Lois spread his layouts on the floor, this guy made a point of stepping on them. They almost came to blows. “He was so determined I was wrong,” Lois said, which was one of the reasons he went out on his own to form Papert Koenig Lois. They were successful. That account director wasn’t. Shows what orgasms can do.
It also shows how people can be avoiders and admirers at the same time. I worked for an agency where the creatives and account people were on different floors. Every day, the account people wandered our halls, sitting in our offices, making like they were checking our work. I found out later they hated being on their own floor. It was so boring and lifeless. It was no fun.
That’s the thing about mistakes. Nobody likes making them, but who doesn’t love a good orgasm — or at least watching those who do?
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.