Mistaking Failure for Mistakes


Make no mistake: we’re afraid of mistakes.

We’re taught early on to fear mistakes. We’re warned for good reasons (“don’t stick a knife in a live toaster” or “look both ways before you cross the street”). But we’re also warned for less good reasons (“Make that essay perfect,” or “Don’t miss that goal”, or “That person, will break your heart”).

Missing a goal or dating the wrong person might be a mistake. The problem comes from being taught to conflate failure and mistakes.  Many of us grow up afraid to take risks, to be creative, to be wrong. Why? Because in our heads, being “wrong” is something for which we must apologize.

There are failures and there are mistakes, and it helps to know the difference.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1987, my goal was to become a rock and roll musician. I fell way short of that goal. By definition, I failed. But it wasn’t a mistake. Labeling a failed attempt to accomplish something a “mistake” that must somehow be atoned for feeds the idea that we should never do anything creative at all.

In business, there may be no more pronounced place where the conflation of failure and mistakes happen than in creative marketing. Sure, people at companies create content pieces (let’s not forget that there are always people behind those ideas) that truly count as mistakes, and they also create content that simply fails. Unfortunately, we, as a culture, tend to lump them all together.

About a month ago, the fitness brand Peloton launched a piece of creative content online and through a national media buy on television. In it, a husband surprises his wife with a fancy exercise bike as a Christmas gift. The actress playing the wife is already fit, so the audience is left confused as to why she or her husband would think she needs this. The conceit of the story is a series of selfie videos documenting the woman’s “journey” of getting fit on her new stationary bike. In the end, it’s revealed that the woman is showing these videos to her husband on the television.

Whether you liked the content or not, it’s hard to argue that this ad wasn’t a failure. People argued that the husband portrayed in the ad was sexist and abusive. Articles claimed the anger toward the content represents how uncomfortable our culture is with consumerism. Many demanded an apology.

Was the ad a mistake? Maybe. Did the brand deserve the level of vitriol that it got?  I’m not sure. Should Peloton apologize? I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. My point isn’t to judge the brand or the people behind the content.

It’s not that we can’t criticize the work. We can. We can learn from the failures. We can have a good laugh at it.  But we can also acknowledge, as the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote, “Not every mistake is a foolish one.” 

Sometimes we have good intentions, we take a risk, we try something outside our normal skills, and we fail. Sometimes spectacularly.

But we should be careful to consider how our expression of anger and fear at others’ failure inhibits our own willingness to take a risk and try innovative creative things.

We’re all trying to have the kind of career success that has the whole world talking about the content we create. To get there, we have to risk that level of failure. And, that’s not a mistake.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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