The uncommon power of trial, error, and the evolution of ideas

Common: Waiting on research, facts, and expertise to improve one’s life or solve problems best addressed through experimentation.

Uncommon: We live in the age of experts, consultants, and politicians—people who stake their livelihood on delivering the ‘right’ answer.  In theory, this works well. In reality, we end up repeating past results, stifling innovation, and curbing our own curiosity and ability.

It’s far too easy (and common) to turn to—and often rely on—these authority figures for advice, feedback, and solutions to important life issues.  The problem, as Tim Harford does an excellent job explaining in this TED video, begins with the assumptions behind our inclinations to turn to ‘the experts.’ In doing so, for example we assume:

  • Their answers are “right”
  • Their answers are “best”
  • They are the most qualified people to engage with the issues
  • If they cannot come up with a solution, there isn’t one to be found

But an impressive title—and even years of experience in a given field—does not guarantee the best result.  In contrast to what we’re taught in school, there are often multiple answers—and many paths that lead to those answers. In fact, sometimes the best way to allow for a great leap forward is by unlearning the existing theories and beliefs surrounding the topic or issue.

Be bold

Instead of relying on statistics, facts, mathematical formulas, and professional opinion to verify or guide our own personal inklings, we should start anew—absent from preconceived notions. This requires a willingness to take a very bold step forward and test our own theories, absent from external judgment, direction, or the likelihood of success.

If Thomas Edison relied on the leading ‘experts’ in the field when deciding to move forward on his theories and ideas, he never would have invented many of his world-changing products—including the light bulb. And there are countless similar examples of this around us each day.

The exception leads to the exceptional

There is a reason some things are considered ‘uncommon’… they haven’t been widely witnessed, replicated, or experienced. So by definition, pursuing (and therefore enjoying) uncommon rewards requires some experimentation on whims of what ‘just might work’… a fancy way of saying ‘trial and error.’

No, trial and error is not just 5th grade science.  It’s exploration in its most raw form.  It allows curiosity and outcomes to take the driver’s seat, forcing potentially misleading dogma and data aside.

The process of trial and error is also a bold one. It requires a willingness to be wrong—something experts, consultants, and politicians struggle with and thus avoid.


But the uncommon achiever knows that it’s not a matter of being ‘right’ (at least in the interim); it’s a matter of moving in the right direction. We need to stop trying to verify before we try. We need to stop pausing progress as we search for facts and information that support our most audacious goals.  We’re better off ‘failing forward’ than remaining idle, waiting for the ‘right’ expert approval.

Sure, the first, second, third, or even ninth attempt may not produce the result we hoped for, but we can take the positive variations and run with them.  Arguably, the most successful steps to innovation are two fold: variation, then selection… repeated again and again and again.

The power of deviation

Many of the most uncommon and important discoveries and innovations are a matter or evolution—the building upon of one idea (successful or not) onto another. It’s these unforeseen deviations that often lead to unexpected and exciting leaps of progress.

Since we cannot map, plan, predict, or control everything, we shouldn’t spend our life trying to do so. As I wrote on Maxims for Mavericks, you cannot prove ‘new’ – someone has to take the first bold step forward to test and try.

There is no proof, only probability – and much of this probability is influenced by the number of times we try, learn, and adapt.

In the end, the difference in people’s life paths is often determined by their own tolerance for the obvious risk in branching away from the status quo to do something ‘new.’ Research and expert opinion may serve a purpose, but they don’t offer much when your plans and actions might change the data you’re researching.

Your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on the topic? Post your comments below.

Stay uncommon,

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