Mistakes, Glorious Mistakes

Do you love mistakes? If you said yes, you would probably lie about other things too. Most of us hate mistakes–guessing wrong on Lotto numbers, getting caught speeding, trusting the questionable business partner. Mistakes mean that we suffer, else we wouldn’t call them mistakes.

Yet in one way, we really are a bundle of mistakes. For every person on Earth, each ancestor received a DNA code from its parents, but the code was not perfect. “Typographical” errors caused imperfections in the transference of information from generation to generation. Some errors, probably the vast majority, resulted in weaker offspring who succumbed to the elements and to predators at a higher rate than others. Those few errors that made offspring more viable eventually resulted in, well, us.

This article by Sir James Dyson is a wonderful description of the process of mistake-making and how it impacts business. Dyson, a prolific inventor, went through more vacuum cleaner prototypes than Georgia has Waffle Houses. He did not become successful until he had outlasted the problem. And he still keeps improving on the original cyclone-vac idea.

Were it not for Dyson’s or any other entrepreneur’s willingness to err over and over and over, we would still be the equivalent of non-organic sediment–a boring and lifeless collection of gunk. Instead, entrepreneurs and inventors give us progress and invariably pay a high price for their persistence. Any complaints that the creator of a beneficial new tool, technique, or treatment does not deserve his/her reward when the suffering finally pays off is a ingrate and a lout.

Yet this is precisely what we have become–a nation that despises the pioneer and loathes the mistake. We take a mental snapshot of the wealthy inventor after he/she spends years unnoticed, unappreciated, and unwealthy and then cry foul. Each idea and each attempt to rectify a mistake is like that constantly evolving genetic code, except it takes place on the inventor’s dime instead of nature’s.

And so Newt Gingrich, a nasty and confused man, has taken Mitt Romney to task for his willingness to correct mistakes. No, Romney is not a recovering child molester or a serial adulterer. He (gasp!) bought troubled companies and tried to turn them around. At the risk of offending anyone out there who is not brain-dead, companies sometimes have too many people on the payroll to survive. Layoffs are necessary to the survival of firms that for whatever reason have too many.

Gingrich is upset that peoples’ jobs got cut. What he doesn’t explain is why that is better than the entire company folding or why the saved money shouldn’t be put where it can do more good for more people. Gingrich, whom George Will rightly calls the quintessential rental politician, has made his living of late “consulting” for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the spoiled stepchildren of progressivism gone wild. Even a cursory review of the FM duo should convince us that Newt is much better at feathering the beds of government-backed parasites than creating value or reallocating non-stolen capital.

Ron Paul is the only candidate I have heard with the decency to defend Romney against the absurd accusation that he is evil incarnate for committing capitalism. I have grave reservations about Romney, but I sure as the sunrise don’t fault him for having actually had to conduct some business during his lifetime.

When mistakes, biological, business, or otherwise, are covered up or prevented by bureaucrats and politicians, the very life of progress is smothered. Romney had a hard job–deciding how to take a mistake and hopefully make it better. In that role, he did not take taxpayers’ money to shore up a bloated and predatory quasi-government entity. Rather he risked voluntary investors’ money on tough turnaround cases. Sometimes he won and sometimes he lost, but he understood mistakes and corrections as necessary to a free and vibrant economy.

Yes, mistakes are glorious. They are painful as the fire that burns a forest to make way for new life. They are as frustrating as a knotted shoelace. They are as irritating as a mosquito. Yet for all that, they are our best friends, both as individuals and as a society. For Republican hopefuls to pile on to Romney for his willingness to be a true capitalist is disgusting beyond description. I hope I never see the like again in my lifetime.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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