On Good Ideas (and Errors)

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Benjamin Franklin wrote:

“Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries…”

In the same vein, the British economist William Stanley Jevons also said the following words,

“In all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous ones.”

Error is one of the 7 reoccurring patterns associated with innovation,  as detailed in Steven Johnson’s book:  Where Good Ideas Come From. However, it takes an enlightened mind to see error as one of the smoothest path to innovation.

When you win, you will probably throw a party, I’d guess. However, when you lose, it triggers totally different sets of action – you ponder, you question, you explore, and challenge assumptions. Indeed, nothing births innovation than the aforementioned. William James. Quoted: “The error is needed to set off the truth, as much as a dark background is required for exhibiting the brightness of a picture”.

According to legend, Thomas Edison carried out 1000 experiments before he invented the light bulb. In other words he failed 999 times! That’s an hell of a trial for an experiment. Think about this; an error means a deviation from the truth, so if there is probably one – or very few ways – to make the bulb light up, and say, there are two thousand hypothesis to try out. How the hell will he get to the correct 1 without ‘getting drenched’ in errors? Well, math tells us it’s possible – with a probability of 0.0005.

Edison knew he had to tolerate failure because the path to correctness is riddled with errors.

The message should not be misconstrued, errors are to be avoided when possible, but the nature of most problems make error inevitable.

This type of thinking is rather intuitive for scientists, but not readily to a lay man.

Here is an (ugly) graph with an inverted U curve, Here, I plot success on the y axis and error on the x axis. You don’t want to be at the two extremes – bottom left or right. The bottom left spot rarely exist (that’s the pith of this article) and for the bottom right: run from that. That occurs when you don’t plan and make degenerative mistakes as opposed to generative errors.

Friends, it’s pretty obvious – the middle top is the sweet spot.  

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