Smart people learn as much, if not more, from mistakes as they do from successes. Mistakes in scientific laboratories have resulted in life-changing inventions like penicillin, microwave ovens, chocolate chip cookies, and Botox. In our own lives, success has often been the artful management of our “creative mistakes.”

Research shows that men recover from their mistakes faster than women. Perhaps it’s because women are often penalized more heavily by society for their mistakes. Laura Liswood, former Secretary General of the United Nations Council on Women, interviewed thirteen women who were serving as heads of state. All thirteen agreed that society does not tolerate women’s mistakes as easily as it does men’s. When you hear commentary like that from women who are leading nations, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why some women fear making mistakes!

Yet we must not fear our mistakes. So when we were asked to speak at a women’s conference on a topic of our choice, Jan suggested that we speak about our “best mistakes.” She reasoned that we ought to start encouraging women to bring their mistakes out of hidden spaces by shining a light onto their “oops” moments.

The day of the conference, we were shocked when more than 600 women showed up to participate. The workshop was so successful that we were asked to repeat it at the California Governor’s Conference on Women that same year. It was a rather humbling endeavor for us to recount our mistakes in public. But it was also very liberating. Our voices gave the women in the audience permission to celebrate their own mistakes and turn the lessons into wisdom.

Creative Accidents

Sitting in the faculty club at Stanford University, the four of us were surrounded by photographs of Nobel Prize winners and presidents as we awaited the arrival of Sara Little Turnbull—the Mother of Invention.

For thirty years, Sara was an influential consultant to dozens of companies—“corporate America’s secret weapon” they called her. Sarah joined Stanford’s graduate business and engineering schools and, for eighteen years, taught hands-on seminars. “But I also encourage students to learn to let their minds meander to discover the unexpected and the creative accidents.” Sara told us that creative accidents hold the seeds of greatness.

Sarah has the ability to take what she refers to as her “brink-of-failure designs” and turn them into her life’s best work. She is a master of the “creative accident.” For Corning, she designed the “classic” Corning Ware—the oven-to-freezer cookware made of ceramic material like that found on spacecraft heat shields. “You have to push forward when you are on the brink of failure,” said Sara. “I’m always questioning, always asking why. I don’t fear mistakes; I look for them!”

The Theory of “Oops”

Researchers at Vanderbilt University have identified a part of the human brain that becomes very active when we begin to make a mistake. In fact, this “oops center” not only detects when we’re about to make an error; it works to prevent it!

We’re convinced that women are best equipped to capitalize on their oops centers, because we are more open and willing to share our mistakes with others. Why is sharing important? you ask. Aren’t we supposed to downplay our mistakes and exude that confident, poised, “got it all together” routine? Well, yes and no.

After a decade of shelving studies that either failed or ended in negative results, Dr. Bjorn Olsen at Harvard University saw the value in a few good mistakes—in fact, a worldwide collection of mistakes. In 2002, Olsen created the Journal of Negative Results, which focuses only on scientific studies that did not work. Now, you might think that Dr. Olsen’s approach to science is a little askew. What scientist wants to publish his or her biggest mistakes in a national journal? Surprisingly, thousands did, including many leading researchers tackling HIV, the cure for cancer, and other important work. Why? Scientists view negative outcomes and mistakes as stepping-stones to answers. Science is based on trial and error.

Over time, the four of us have learned to adopt this “scientific approach” to mistakes. Instead of dreading them, hiding them, or being embarrassed by them, we understand that mistakes, especially when shared, are doorways to discovery. In the next stories, we share what we’ve learned from some of the common mistakes that women make. If you’ve already made them, at least you’ll know you are not alone!