Learning, Mistakes, Innovation & Risks

Learning, Mistakes, Innovation & Risks
By Adam Chan

The paradox of “Ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what it was built for” is pervasive in the way when every leader are confronted with tough issues, stretched decisions to be made, and communicating the unpleasant news.

Risk is never exclusive from learning. One can never learn to be proficient without making mistakes. What about scholars and brilliant academics? Do they make mistakes too? Nothing can be further from the truth; they do. However, nobody says we have to announce the mistake we make to everyone. Inadvertently, everyone will make mistakes but not everyone learn from it. Individuals who welcome the challenges brought about by changes and see it as excitement is likely to succeed in overcoming these challenges.

If we are going learn, we should be prepared to be wrong. Otherwise we would never learn. A parable of ski trainees and instructor;

A ski trainee took up a skiing lesson and the trainee managed to stay upright the whole session without falling. The trainee then bragged to the instructor about his no falling record. Surprisingly, the instructor was not the least impressed instead he told the trainee that it was indeed a lousy session for him. The trainee was not satisfied with the response and he confronted the instructor, demanding for an explanation. The instructor said, “If you have not fallen, this means you have not learnt.” The trainee immediately felt a sense of realization from the reply.

The essence in the parable tells us about taking risk whilst learning. Making mistakes is part of learning. In the corporate world, making mistakes can mean stalled in career progression or even termination. In the sporting arena, mistakes can mean losing the pinnacle. In mountaineering, making mistake can mean life and death. So how can we promote the attitude of taking risks that lead to learning? Another parable about mistakes and innovation;

In an art class, the students are told by the teacher to draw the presented still life. Sitting right at the back of the class was this young girl who is immensely absorbed into her own world; drawing but not the still life. The teacher noticed her distraction so she decided to check on her. The teacher asked, “What are you drawing?” The girl told the teacher it is GOD she is drawing. However, nobody knows how GOD looks like. The teacher asked, “Nobody knows how GOD looks like, right?” The girl gave a tongue in cheek reply to the teacher and she said, “They will know in a minute!”

Is the parable about making mistakes or being innovative? To make sense of the parable, we ought to examine the connections between making mistakes and innovation. Once we are able to discern the connections, we can then relate it to learning. Perhaps we should ask ourselves does innovation means making mistakes or inadvertently learning comes with making mistakes? Firstly, kids don’t know about making mistakes let alone feeling the social pressure of making mistakes as a cardinal sin. In fact most kids would not even care if they got it right. As long as they are not held back by what is right or wrong, they will give a go at any questions posed by adults.

As we grew from childhood to adulthood, we learn from the world and certain worldviews are etched within us. The knowledge we gained enable us to function in the world, create significance, make progresses, etc. By the same token, the knowledge could become stumbling blocks to what we want to achieve in lives. These stumbling blocks are often intangible, linked robustly to the each person’s worldviews. The link; could very well turn into major barriers that stop us from moving forward. Much like the parable of the girl who draws GOD, she did not carry such “links”, she simply draw GOD as what she deemed fits. However the teacher possessed the notion of “nobody knows how GOD looks like” that inhibited her from understanding how the girl thinks. Perhaps she can never think like the girl.

So what is the connection between innovation and making mistakes? It seems like making mistake is innovation or to innovate is to make mistakes. Perhaps there are risk components in the innovation process too. What is paramount is the attitude rather the ability. If we are not prepared to be wrong (an attitude), we would never derive anything original (an ability). Isn’t it? In an environment where mistakes are stigmatized, innovation will not survive.

In summary, when we are learning, inadvertently we make mistakes; mistakes are results of taking risks and to innovate is about taking risk. The connections between learning, mistakes, innovation and risks are strong yet elusive. So the next time should you ski, do remember to take a fall.