The Art And Necessity Of Making Mistakes

“We all make mistakes.” That's something you've probably heard since you were a child. But that expression comes with a judgement—that while we all may make mistakes, the idea is to avoid them. Accept that they happen, but do everything you can to make sure they don't happen again.

And we carry that judgement with us into our careers and business lives. We do everything we can to avoid making mistakes, to avoid failure.

But that might be the biggest mistake of all.

If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.
— Ed Catumull


Marketing is both a creative and academic field—we use creativity to come up with new ideas that we can rigorously test. We begin every marketing project in a dark room, attempting to find our way toward the door. It takes time for our eyes to adjust, and we'll often fumble toward a window or a lamp—or some other distraction—before we finally find the way.

Mistakes aren't an unavoidable side effect of that process—they are the process. As Pixar president Ed Catmull said, “Mistakes aren't a necessary evil. They aren't an evil at all.”

Marketing's creative side comes from the requirement to do something new, something unexpected. And to truly do something new, you have to risk doing something wrong. You have to be willing to make mistakes.

What kind of mistakes do I mean? Creating social media content that doesn't quite resonate with your audience. Advertising to the wrong customer persona. Producing a YouTube video that doesn't get the views you hoped for.

Each of these are avoidable, but usually only by doing nothing at all. To get it right, you have to be willing to get it wrong once or twice first. As Ryan Holiday said, “Failure shows us the way by showing us what isn't the way.”

So if mistakes are important and necessary, how do we avoid making too many or failing too badly that we can't recover and improve?



The first step in making mistakes work for you is to remember that they don't have to be your mistakes. As Bismarck is often quoted as saying, “Fools learn from their own mistakes. I prefer to learn from the mistakes of others.”

While learning from your own mistakes isn't foolish, depending solely on your own experience certainly is.

Learn about the failings of others, learn where they went wrong and what you can do differently. Do your homework and learn why the “Your Father's Oldsmobile” campaign killed a legacy brand. Find out why Pepsi abandoned traditional advertising—and then quickly reversed course.

The important thing is learning, taking lessons from these mistakes and applying them to your own work. Be happy to make small mistakes on your own, but if you can, learn from the bigger mistakes of others so you don't have to make them all yourself.

As Liddell Hart said, “There are two forms of practical experience—direct and indirect—and that, of the two, indirect practical experience may be the more valuable because infinitely wider.”

You can learn far more from the mistakes of others than your own mistakes for the simple reason that there are a lot more of them than there are of you.


Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.
— Jason Fried & DHH

The first step is acknowledging that mistakes are advantageous, they are the price we pay to do something new. The second step is learning from the mistakes of others and applying those lessons. And the third and final step is making more mistakes ourselves, and fixing them.

As David C. Baker said, “The two biggest dangers in decision making are not making enough decisions and then not correcting the bad ones.”

Mistakes come from making decisions, and decisions are essential in business, and life. As U.S. Grant said, “We must decide. If I am wrong we shall soon find it out, and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.”

By making decisions quickly and often, we can make small bets and see if they pay off. If we put off making decisions until they must be made, we usually end up having to go all-in because we've left ourselves no time to do anything else.

So instead of wondering whether you should try programmatic advertising, decide to try it out. Instead of wondering whether you need to take your social media in-house, decide to experiment with it a piece at a time. Instead of hoping that your TV ad campaign will succeed, decide to run creative tests on YouTube first.

Make decisions early and often. Embrace mistakes. And continue to feel your way toward the lighted doorway.

If you'd like help making sure you're learning from your mistakes and making progress every day, we're here for you.