To Err is Divine  

July|August 2012 Contents
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Canada to Class of 2012: “Get in the game”

Honorary-degree recipients

Buy and hold: University sells $300 million in 100-year bonds

Contract extension will keep Gutmann in College Hall until 2019

Kasparov on politics: “The comparison with chess is not correct”

Toni Morrison gets Beacon Award at TCPW’s 25th

Penn offering free courses through Coursera online-education platform

Nursing’s Center for Global Women’s Health holds first symposium


Shoah Foundation’s Holocaust archives coming to Penn

GSE’s Lynch resigns over false credentials

“Golden Goose” awards will defend the value of research

Learning from Brilliant Mistakes


Scotty Williams C’12 leads men’s golf to Ivy title and NCAAs


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Mistakes are the best teachers; it’s one of the oldest clichés about learning. Yet even people who wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion tend to do anything to avoid making errors. Paul Schoemaker wants to change that.

“If they are so valuable to you,” the Wharton professor says about mistakes, “then why don’t you make a few more?

In his new book Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure, published by Wharton Digital Press, Schoemaker proposes an idea that will churn the stomachs of perfectionists everywhere: make mistakes on purpose, and make them often.

Everyone learns from mistakes. Whether they lead to something brilliant—like Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin—or end in failure, they always seem to provide a valuable lesson. But Schoemaker takes mistake-making one step further, asking: Why wait for mistakes to happen? Why not “accelerate the learning process” by making them on purpose? After all, the book explains, penicillin, the Beatles, and most of those lovely font choices in your word processor exist because their creators decided to make the “wrong” choices.

Of course, Schoemaker—the research director of Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation—is not proposing we all quit our jobs and end happy marriages just to see what happens. 

He lays out a systematic method for making “deliberate mistakes.” In the business world, the key to pulling off this apparent oxymoron is identifying the assumptions that underlie a company’s tactics and habits, and then ranking the potential costs and benefits of making experimental changes to them.

Challenging accepted models is central to his argument. Take Penn, for example. If the admissions office wanted to test whether its criteria for acceptance were satisfactory, he says, it should admit a number of students who do not meet the usual standards—a deliberate mistake that could potentially lead to “brilliant” insight on the admissions process.

Schoemaker applies his ideas in the personal realm as well. He cites a young woman who fell in love by deciding to go out with every man she would typically reject.

To spread his ideas further, Wharton Digital Press recently hosted a contest to support the book. They sought submissions from around the world that highlighted contestants’ own mistake-driven insights.

“It doesn’t matter to us whether people stumbled on something accidentally or whether they deliberately did it,” Schoemaker explained. “It’s really about the quality of the learning.”

The three winning entries:

Laura Caldwell of the Acme Balloon Company (also known as Annie Banannie) is a storyteller who once showed up to a performance for 200 children with nothing prepared. That day, at a local Colorado library, she decided to let the kids help create the story along with her. “I knew from the kids’ positive reaction that making my show more about creative storytelling was how I could improve my show,” she told Now Caldwell works with schools to better integrate educational standards for language arts and creative learning. She is also starting an online community for child writers.

At the beginning of his medical career, Stephen Salzman of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center assumed that because athletes typically have relatively low heart rates, they must be less sensitive to the effects of adrenaline. When he tested this assumption experimentally, he was surprised to find that the exact opposite proved to be true—a discovery that changed cardiologists’ understanding of the relationship. 

Matthew Lynch’s brilliant breakthrough came from deciding to look for fraud among lower-than-average Medicare claims, as opposed to higher ones. He uncovered a lot more fishy claims than he or anyone else expected, changing the conventional wisdom. Fraud investigators have now changed their methods to catch cases that previously would have gone undetected.

The contest, whose prizes included Southwest Airlines tickets and an invitation to the Wharton Mack Center for Technological Innovation conference, was a way to promote awareness of the success mistakes can bring. Schoemaker hopes that companies will begin to change the way they approach errors and accidents. For example, he thinks employees should be rewarded rather than penalized for mistakes, at least when they can harness them into productive learning.

“I’m touching the tip of an iceberg that’s quite deep,” Schoemaker says. “It’s still a domain that needs to be explored much more fully.”

Had Alexander Fleming not been too lazy to clean his cultures, he would never have discovered his disease-fighting mold. If Steve Jobs hadn’t dropped out of college and taken a calligraphy course, we could all be stuck typing in Times New Roman. And had producer George Martin slammed the door in the face of a few young English boys who’d been rejected four times by more seasoned record-company execs, a yellow submarine would just be a yellow submarine.

—Molly Sprayregen C’13


©2012 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/03/12