The benefits of mistakes


I recently shared a few quotes on mistakes here. And based on the comments, they seemed to strike a chord for many of you. I believe you can’t have too much instruction on the value of mistakes. So I thought I’d share one of my favorite illustrations on the subject. This is quoted in my book, Failing Forward.

Working artists David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, tell a story about an art teacher who did an experiment with his grading system for two groups of students. It is a parable on the benefits of failure. Here is what happened:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A,” forty pounds a “B,” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” hoever, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A.” Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

It doesn’t matter whether your objectives are in the area of art, business, ministry, sports, or relationships. The only way you can get ahead is to fail early, fail often, and fail forward.

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  1. 1
    Chris Hassall says:

    Thanks for posting this John. Fantastic example that a person should just get to it, and stop thinking about how it should be “just right”.


  2. 2
    Frank Agliotti says:

    Dear John, I have followed your teachings, insight and life experience and firstly I want to thank you for being a leader with a heart to serve and care for others.

    Failing forward and the article you have shared really touched our heart, as I shared it with my wife Charmain. We have come through some struggles and challenges and learned some invaluable lessons. More importantly, the counsel and insight you have shared over the years has helped us.

    Your sincerely, love and God Bless
    Frank and Charmain Agliotti

  3. 3
    teensville1 says:

    Thanks John you are truely wonderful.
    Failing forward. He who does learns to do much more and much better, he who does not do looses his confidence to do anything in the future. It is only through practice and competitions that an athlet gets better.

  4. 4
    Maritza says:

    I really enjoy your posts and your books…

  5. 5
    Beloved Solomon says:

    Shalom Royalty,
    Thanks a lot John. God bless your soul real good. Cheers

  6. 6


    This is a great post. I just finished up the 5 Levels of Leadership and have already read the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, what do you recommend that I grab next?



  7. 7
    Reflecto says:

    Its been a while since I visited John’s site but now I remember why I like it so much. The fear that others will witness our failure is also a factor in why sometimes I take time to do something. I especially like the last line, failing forward. After all how does one appreciate standing if they have not fallen?

    Thank you

  8. 8
    Reflecto says:

    Its been a while since I visited John’s site but now I remember why I like it so much.

    The fear others will witness my failure is also a factor in why sometimes I take time to do something. I especially like the last line, failing forward. After all how does one appreciate standing if they have not fallen?

    Thank you

  9. 9
    Joy says:

    Thanks a lot John, your thoughts and your ways of communicating the same are really great. May God bless you greatly.

  10. 10

    An interesting answer to the age old question, Quantity vs. Quality. How many of us get wrapped around the quality axle, then wonder why our work is not appreciated?

  11. 11
    MsNet says:

    This message truly struck a chord with me. I feel that I have been filled with a train loads of theories and reasonings and can’t understand why I have not been able to move forward. In a word, this encourages me to “Just do it!” If I mess up, get up, and move up!

  12. 12

    In my country we have a saying in spanish: lo perfecto es enemigo de lo bueno. In english. Perfect is the enemy of good. Results is the key!

  13. 13
    Evan says:

    Really good thinking. I am unlearning some of my old thinking and taking on many of the things you are teaching. Thank you John! Evan, Oxford, UK

  14. 14
    B Kite says:

    one of my most favorite books next to IMAGINE and am stealing their quote to use in my next newsletter. thanks.

  15. 15

    I think sometimes we overvalue mistakes. At times mistakes can have horrible consequences and should be avoided at all costs, especially in family life. I’d hate for a leader to lower his guard under the guise that he can merely learn from his mistakes with only positive repercussions.

    It’s like in scripture when God says he prefers obedience to being sorry.

    When we make mistakes it is best to learn from them, but I’ve personally just heard a little too much of the “mistakes are good” message.

    • 15.1


      I agree with your sentiment, but I don’t think that is the point of this post. Rather than thinking about “mistakes” consider thinking about “skill.” The better pots were made by those who developed their skill through practice. That is the point.

      In the pottery class, one group studied and considered, but didn’t take much action. They may have even more thoroughly understood the process better than their quantity peers. But at the end of the course, those who took more action are the ones that were more skilled.

      –of course, if the “quality” group really understood the techniques and theory better, they would become more skilled over time than those who just “sling clay” without understanding the theory and nuance… but that is also another subject…


  16. 16
    enrique says:

    only trough familiarity with action we can start to compete for the prize, and mistakes all are often made at the beggining of competition….the name of the game is competition with fair rules……..enrique

  17. 17
    Ed says:

    Excellent for most things where life and death matter not. Let’s not stop being sure about what we are doing while developing airplanes, products requiring persanal safety, medicines,etc. Getting there first and learning by mistakes that kill people and careers is not leadership.

  18. 18
    Rachel says:

    O John!
    Its comforting to know that I can comfortably go out there… and fail :) and not be overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I feel relieved..(sigh!!)

  19. 19

    Thanks for sharing that with us. I think part of the issue, at least for myself, is having realistic expectations instead of expecting perfection on the fist try. In other words, having grace towards ourselves an giving ouselves rooms for error and improvement. Talking to my councellor about some perfectionistic tendencies of mine, he drove this point home for me when he mentioned that treating ourselves with harshness is wrong since God himself would not have me treat myself (or others) that way. After all, Jesus died at the cross to save us from ur own sins/imperfections and gives us second chances, not so we could beat ourselves down over them.

  20. 20

    That was excellent. Many of us like to overanalyze things because we’re afraid to fail and make mistakes, (and I’m one of those people). But I’m glad that God and life permit us to make mistakes. If we’re smart, we’ll learn from them and not wallow in pity or self-doubt.

    This entry has encouraged me to let go of fear and move on with the new project I’ve been considering. :)

    Thanks Dr. Maxwell!

  21. 21

    […] I chanced upon John Maxwell’s ‘John Maxwell on Leadership’ website through a friend’s post on Facebook. This article caught my eye and I thought it would be nice to share… The benefits of mistakes […]

  22. 22

    […] Follow JohnCMaxwell on Twitter. Or visit John’s Facebook page. Introducing a new daily video program, A Minute with Maxwell. Sign up here. It’s free! The benefits of mistakes […]

  23. 23

    I have often maintained that it is failing that we learn our biggest lessons. Thanks, John.

  24. 24

    […] came across a short blog post by leadership guru John Maxwell that focused my weary mind. I suggest you read it […]

  25. 25

    […] The benefits of mistakes […]

  26. 26

    Failing is so important and vital to your success, I actually get very excited when I fail because it raises my level of awareness that I did not see at first to propel me forward to a new opportunity and grow by stepping up to a bigger stage towards a bigger opportunity then previously as I keep raising my level of awareness to all that is around me that can progressively move me forward to my worthy ideal, purpose in life.

  27. 27
    Stan says:

    I read and heard so many many different inspiring stories. This one, though is striking chord with me – I tend to theorize more than to act. And it completely makes sense – precisely as Mr. IBM once said – if you want success (quality) double the rate of failure (quantity).
    John, I love your work, keep it up and thank you again for this parable.

  28. 28

    Hello, Neat post. There’s a problem with your website in web explorer, could test this… IE nonetheless is the market leader and a good component of folks will leave out your wonderful writing because of this problem.

  29. 29
    Isabelle says:

    Dear John,

    I’ve been wondering for years how to find courage to build a successful part-time business in order to turn it into my full-time career. I looked for that magic script, saying or book that would move me into action and would suddenly make the fear go away. I’d wake up to courage one day and would loose it at the first sign of an obstacle or a challenge, believing that I wasn’t cut out for success, that somehow there was something wrong with me. I’d never learned what failure really was all about and no one had taught me before to never personalize failure. I also wanted to learn and grow to be a positive role model for my two young daughters but I knew I needed to do a serious ‘check up from the neck up’ in order for that to happen. So I signed up for different positive websites and newsletters, and came across your blog. This post changed my life! As soon as I finished reading it, I went to a different website and bought your book Failing Forward. You have given me a new perspective on failure and success and I’ve been growing my part-time business steadily ever since! Everyone around me has seen the personal growth that has come from ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’, and it even inspired others around me to follow their dreams.

    Thank you, John, for having the courage to follow YOUR dream of helping others succeed.