I learned early in life that making mistakes was a bad thing. I learned that making mistakes meant failure, and that mistakes should be avoided at all costs.
I learned that lesson so well that I became afraid to try new things. Why try something new, if I was going to be bad (fail) at it?
Then I went to pharmacy school, and I was taught to avoid mistakes at all costs. A dispensing error had the potential to be fatal, and I didn’t want to kill a patient.
What if everything I learned about making mistakes was wrong?
I started a new career in the pharmaceutical industry in 1994. Soon after I started in that career, the CEO of the company I was working for gave a talk at a company “all-hands” meeting. He said something that I’ll never forget. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re doing something wrong”. I did a double-take. He doubled down on what he said, and continued with “if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough”.
That was the first time someone ever encouraged me to make a mistake. I’ve never looked at mistakes the same way since.
While I was working at that same company, one of my colleagues and I were campaigning our boss to institute a “double-checking” feature on a certain part of our work.
Our boss looked at both of us, and replied “if you are double-checking the work, and you are also double-checking the work- which one of you don’t I need?”
He was right. My colleague and I were so focused on doing this task perfectly that we lost sight of the big picture. The task we were trying to perfect was ok being 99.5% correct. Trying to make it perfect was a waste of time and energy.
In the drug development arena, pharmaceutical companies have a 5-15% chance of obtaining a drug approval for a compound entering phase III clinical trials. There is an expression in this arena: “fail faster”. It costs a lot of money to try to develop new drugs. The faster a company realizes that its compound isn’t approvable, the faster it can stop development, and move its resources toward a possibly more effective compound.
Imagine my reaction the first time someone told me to “fail faster”.
Mark Twain supposedly said “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions”.
Hopefully I am making more good decisions than bad ones. But I am not afraid of making mistakes anymore.