John Cleese on The Importance of Making and Embracing Mistakes


Cre­ative Com­mons image by Paul Box­ley

In his essay “The Rel­a­tiv­i­ty of Wrong,” Isaac Asi­mov argues per­sua­sive­ly against the com­mon belief that “’right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolute; that every­thing that isn’t per­fect­ly and com­plete­ly right is total­ly and equal­ly wrong.” Instead, he says, “it seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy con­cepts,” and that cer­tain ideas can be true in a sense, but still in need of fur­ther cor­rec­tion with new infor­ma­tion. I can’t tes­ti­fy as to the strength of his argu­ment when it comes to the­o­ret­i­cal physics, but as far as basic induc­tive rea­son­ing goes it seems per­fect­ly sound to me, and a point worth mak­ing fre­quent­ly. We don’t expe­ri­ence a world of bina­ries, but one full of “fuzzi­ness” and near miss­es of all kinds.

As in science—argues for­mer Mon­ty Python mem­ber, com­e­dy writer, and intel­lec­tu­al gad­fly John Cleese—so in busi­ness. Cleese gave a moti­va­tion­al speech called “The Impor­tance of Mis­takes” in 1988 to an audi­ence of 500 busi­ness­man at the British-Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce, a demo­graph­ic he has addressed remote­ly since 1972 with a series of busi­ness train­ing videos made by his com­pa­ny, Video Arts. (“Bet­ter job train­ing through enter­tain­ment,” as Kate Callen at UPI describes the com­pa­ny’s mis­sion. Videos have titles like “Meet­ings, Bloody Meet­ings,” and “If Looks Could Kill.”)

In “The Impor­tance of Mis­takes,” Cleese explains that we do not veer wild­ly off course into total wrong­ness every time we make an error. Instead, our mis­takes pro­vide us with oppor­tu­ni­ties for feed­back, which enables us to make course cor­rec­tions, where we will inevitably make anoth­er mis­take, receive more feed­back, etc., until we hit the mark. These metaphors are not mine; Cleese uses a sto­ry called Gor­don the Guid­ed Mis­sile as his pri­ma­ry example—which he dubi­ous­ly claims was “the first nurs­ery sto­ry I ever remem­ber my moth­er read­ing to me”:

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, 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.

The sto­ry illus­trates, Cleese says, the impor­tance of a “tol­er­ant atti­tude towards mistakes”—even, a “pos­i­tive atti­tude.” To take any oth­er view would be to behave “irra­tional­ly, unsci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, and unsuc­cess­ful­ly.” Cleese more or less rec­om­mends his audi­ence adopt Asimov’s sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tive on error: mis­takes are not dis­as­trous­ly irrecov­er­able mis­steps, but ways of learn­ing how to get things “less wrong.”

Some clar­i­fi­ca­tion: Cleese means to val­i­date only “those mis­takes which, at the time they were com­mit­ted, did have a chance.” A rea­son­ably good try, in oth­er words. There are some absolutes in the world, after all, and there are “true cop­per bot­tomed mis­takes, like spelling the word ‘rab­bit with three m’s or … start­ing a land war in Asia.” But the point stands. We’re usu­al­ly in the realm of in-between, and instead of let­ting the anx­i­ety of inde­ter­mi­na­cy over­whelm us, Cleese rec­om­mends we take risks and “gain the con­fi­dence to con­tribute spon­ta­neous­ly to what’s hap­pen­ing,” thus over­com­ing inhi­bi­tions and the fear of look­ing ridicu­lous.

Cleese deliv­ered this speech to a body of peo­ple not typ­i­cal­ly known for act­ing spon­ta­neous­ly. And while it seems to me that these days top exec­u­tives can make egre­gious errors (or com­mit egre­gious fraud) and land square­ly on their feet, I won­der if those on the tiers below have the priv­i­lege of dar­ing to make errors in most indus­tries. In any case, whether an assem­bly of cor­po­rate man­agers can afford to loosen up, the rest of us prob­a­bly can, if we’re will­ing to adopt a “pos­i­tive atti­tude” toward mis­takes and consistently—scientifically, even—view them as oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn.

All of this requires a fine bal­ance of the con­fi­dence to screw up and the humil­i­ty to take con­struc­tive feed­back when you do. “Healthy behav­ior actu­al­ly aris­es out of con­fi­dence,” Cleese observed in an inter­view after his speech, and yet, “the worst prob­lem in management—in fact, the worst prob­lem in life—is the ego.”

Read many more excerpts from Cleese’s speech here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cleese on How “Stu­pid Peo­ple Have No Idea How Stu­pid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect)

John Cleese Explores the Health Ben­e­fits of Laugh­ter

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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