Sometimes we have this notion that being productive means seeing everything go flawlessly and exactly as planned. That mistakes are wasteful, and we should do whatever we can to avoid them.
We Need to Have a Place for Mistakes
But the fact is that mistakes are often the fuel for learning. Sometimes, you learn much more from making a mistake than from seeing everything go right.
The biggest mistake you can make is to live your life so as to minimize the possibility of making mistakes. To be sure, some mistakes are wasteful and not to be made. Ethical mistakes, moral failures, and carless mistakes are to be avoided (though God can even redeem those). But when it comes to the realm of seeking to serve others, doing good work, and glorifying God, we need to be willing to risk, to venture forth, and try things. Some things cannot be learned without risk, and some needs cannot be met without first going through a period of failure.
Hence, we need a place for mistakes failure. The key is, as Daniel Pink points out, “to make excellent mistakes.” These are the mistakes that come from aiming high; from trying to do something new and important that moves the ball forward. There is no other way to do good work and meet the pressing needs of the world.
Mistakes and Excellence: When Deadlines Don’t Work
Along with this, it is a myth to think that being productive means you never miss a deadline, never make mistakes, and always have perfect peace of mind.
This is a subtle myth. It is of course true that we should meet our deadlines. However, the problem is when we define productivity chiefly in terms of meeting deadlines, as though it’s the deadline that matters rather than the results. The ability to meet deadlines is not what makes you productive. Just because you are meeting deadlines doesn’t mean you are doing truly useful work.
The deeper problem with this myth is that it looks at productivity only from the perspective of personal management, rather than also the perspective of personal leadership. When you are doing the sorts of things that move entire fields and industries forward (or maybe even just your organization or department), you are not in the realm of things that can be tightly nailed down and predicted. You are instead in the arena of ambiguity and the unknown—which is a leadership task, not a management task.
You cannot lead your way through the unknown via deadlines. You need to allow for slack, exploration, ambiguity, and finding your way as you go. To be productive in these realms is not to meet every deadline, but to come out the other side with a truly remarkable, useful result—without killing yourself in the process. You don’t manage through unknown territory by using the tactics of known territory (namely, deadlines). When you are handling the unknown, you by definition can’t nail down your timelines. This doesn’t mean results don’t matter. It just means that different approaches need to be applied—approaches that are OK with greater messiness and ambiguity.
In addition to this, most people are going above and beyond every day. If they miss a deadline, it’s because their heart is bigger than their head, and we should cut them some slack. It is better to aim high and miss a few deadlines in the process, than to only do the minimum.