How Should We Respond to Mistakes?

Photo: Uncanny Brands

New York based Uncanny Brands produces a unique blend of pop-culture toys, artwork, and small appliances. Their Star Wars line alone is impressive, featuring items such as the Death Star Popcorn Maker, Lightsaber Salt & Pepper Mills, and the Millennium Falcon Waffle Maker. Sports fans can select from NHL and NBA themed merchandise, while KISS and WWE aficionados have plenty to choose from as well.

But if you’ve been thinking that your toast is a little plain, I suggest you check out their Bob Ross Toaster. Just pop in your bread, and out comes a fairly reasonable likeness of the famous painter burned into your breakfast bread. There’s even a full color portrait of Ross on the side of the toaster, so you don’t have to feel bad about biting into his fluffy afro.

For those of you who don’t know who Bob Ross is, you owe it to yourself to check out a video or two of his PBS show The Joy of Painting. It aired from 1983 to 1994 (Ross died of lymphoma in 1995) and each half-hour episode featured Ross offering painting instruction as he completed a new landscape in real time. Ross’ belief that everyone could paint, and his soothing commentary earned him rave reviews and three Emmy Awards during its run.

After his death, Ross’ popularity continued to grow, in large part because of his fun approach to painting and his encouraging witticisms. One of his most enduring quotes references the goof-ups that inevitably happen as we pursue any endeavor. After an errant stroke of the brush, he said “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”

Ross believed that mistakes were valuable as a natural part of the learning process. We don’t seek to make mistakes, but we should take advantage of them to grow. How we respond to our mistakes determines the value we receive from them. In particular, I see three ways we can turn our own mistakes into “happy little accidents.”

  1. Perfect your technique. There’s no doubt that some people are born with a natural inclination for painting. I’m not one of those, but thankfully I have other natural talents. Yet even the most gifted in any area will address their mistakes and practice to improve their skill level. Writers become better writers by writing. Athletes get better by competing. In every case, mistakes can point you to valuable lessons that need to be learned in order to become more proficient.
  2. Learn something new. Mistakes can often lead us to discover different ways of completing a task. I’ve lost track of how many innovative woodworking skills I’ve picked up as a result of messing up some aspect of a project in my home shop. Nine times out of ten, my second or third attempt, using a different approach, uncovers a faster, cleaner, more satisfying result. Without mistakes, I’d still be using time-intensive, less effective methods to get things done.
  3. Build a relationship. Mistakes provide us with an opportunity to establish and build relationships with people that we otherwise wouldn’t. Seeking out advice after messing up can lead you to a coworker or colleague; someone with whom you can share your own wisdom with. And while we definitely wouldn’t invite mistakes concerning customer relationships, studies show that customers who encounter a problem – and have it resolved to their satisfaction – become even more loyal than those who never have an issue in the first place.

Bob Ross once dabbed the wrong color onto one of his paintings (I’m sure it happened more than once). Instead of losing his cool or starting over, he simply moved the blob of paint around to create a bird. He turned his mistake into the focal point of a masterpiece. I’ll be keeping that in mind the next time I enjoy a slice of toast.