Paul Schoemaker Talks to the Wall Street Journal about Brilliant Mistakes

Inventors from Archimedes to Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk have made mistakes that caused their discoveries to develop in surprisingly helpful directions.

Now the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is trying to capture mistakes like this, with the idea that making mistakes on purpose is something that all of us could be taught. Today the business school named the winners of its first Brilliant Mistakes Contest, which awarded prizes (including Southwest Airlines tickets, free courses and conference tickets, and lunch with a contest judge) to people whose mistakes were the most productive.

The winners are Dr. Stephen Salzman of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, who proved that his hypothesis on why athletes have low heart rates was completely wrong; Annie Banannie aka Laura Caldwell of Acme Balloon Company, a story teller who was forced to ad-lib her show in front of 200 children at a library in Colorado and decided that ad-libbing was “the best show idea ever;” and Matthew Lynch of Palmetto GBA, who changed the way his company analyzed Medicare claims and payments and stumbled on startling new methods of fraud.

“Executives would say, I learn from my mistakes, and I’d say since mistakes are random, why not make a few more?” said Paul Schoemaker, the author of “Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success On The Far Side Of Failure,” and a contest judge. “People don’t have a good answer—it seems like a totally silly idea to make mistakes on purpose–but what’s the chance that you or I have encountered the optimal number of challenges to our beliefs?”

Most of the contest’s entries were rejected because the entrants didn’t seem to learn much from their mistakes, Schoemaker said. One person, for instance, accidentally checked the wrong box on a job application form and got a different but equally acceptable job. “That was pure luck,” he said.

The winners, however, all said their mistakes changed their lives.

Salzman said he continues to help “young doctors, medical residents and cardiology fellows to realize how much we all don’t know, to never stop learning (and) always to be aware of the possibility of a better choice…” He also tells his grandchildren not to worry about being perfect.

Caldwell said she incorporated state educational standards for language arts into her show and turned it into “a hugely successful school assembly and the core idea for an online children’s story writing community.”

Lynch said his decision to look for Medicare claims that were lower than average instead of higher than average exposed fraudsters who were flying under the radar, and it changed the way his industry investigates fraud.

“(Lynch) challenged conventional wisdom—often a whole field or culture is stuck on a wrong hypothesis,” Schoemaker said.

The contest entries may yield some good teaching points for Schoemaker, who is research director at Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation and teaches critical thinking. Wharton is also planning a conference on June 1 on the role of failure in innovation.

The contest also revealed that most people don’t understand what a brilliant mistake is, Schoemaker said, but he thinks it’s an important idea to learn. “All companies make mistakes—all people do—but from a corporate perspective, mistakes are company assets. The company paid for them, and it’s not OK to hide them,” he said. “So find the silver lining in your mistakes.”

The Brilliant Mistakes Contest was sponsored in part by Inc. Magazine.