The Art of Mistaking Makes

Painting of birds on wires.

Image by Marcie Vargas

I see lots of things that no one else does. Some of them are even really there.

I get a lot of my ideas by looking at things and wondering “what isn’t it,” or “what didn’t I see?” For instance, the other day I was out at a friend’s studio and noticed a bunch of birds hanging out on a telephone wire, the way they tend to do… And I thought “hmmm… if you could train those birds to sit where you pointed, you could make them be an abacus.”

I really like the idea of an abacus of trained birds. Okay, sure, it isn’t very practical, but given that people have been able to train birds to do things like carry messages, I’m sure it would be possible if you really wanted an avian abacus. And who knows, maybe you could even utilize their innate flocking and navigational skills to get them to do much more complex math than people usually attempt on an abacus. Maybe it’s a whole new way to approach bio-computing. Or not.

Then I was looking at the big sign in in my friend’s yard, which says “antiques” in huge letters and “pottery” in much smaller letters. Because she’s a potter and runs her parents old antiques store, which also happens to have some of her work in it. And it occurred to me, because of the birds, that if she were to line up a series of her pots in uneven heights along the top of the sign it would be more interesting. And maybe people would stop in more. Well, I would anyway. And of course it would be easy enough to use pots that had been ruined in the firing, since there always seem to be a few that go wrong. So it wouldn’t require any sacrifice, really, other than climbing up there. That’s a more practical idea that came from the birds. If it were me, I’d probably cover the entire sign post in pots like a bottle tree.

And of course, when I was a kid, I used to think birds on a wire looked kind of like musical notes and wouldn’t it be cool if you could train them to arrange themselves to write out the notes they sing when they’re chirping. Maybe not so practical again.

But then, it might be cool to do an ironwork fence that spelled out the notes of a common bird song by arranging little metal birds on the rails of the fence. Back to somewhat practical. Imagine a fence that scores the ten most common birdsongs of your region, all with notes in the shape of the bird whose song it is. Nice.

Niels Bohr once said, “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”

So I’ve gotten in the habit of reversing, inverting, subverting, or combining random statements to see if there’s a great truth hiding there that maybe no one has noticed yet- I intentionally try to misread any clichés I run across. How can I hear it wrong but better? How can I creatively misinterpret things? How can I see the things that aren’t there? And then, once you’re clearly out of step with what’s in front of you, it helps to focus and see where that mistake can lead you. It’s a fun game, even when you don’t bring anything great home from it (it also makes it much easier to tolerate people who speak in clichés).

My friend Daniel Edlen provided a great example of finding new meaning by inverting a cliché when he Twittered “Leadership means preaching what you practice.” I like that a lot better than the original phrase… it’s more interesting than saying “lead by example,” and so it’s more likely to be heard. More likely to stick.

One more example of paying attention to good mistakes: I accidentally typed “playwood” once when I meant to write plywood. But playwood is so much better. It describes the material and it’s uses far more accurately, to my mind. Because with a little plywood you can make just about anything, quickly, cheaply etc. I’ve been calling it playwood ever since.

You and Your Mistakes

Have you ever made a mistake – of thinking, perception or action – that turned out to be really creative?

Do you deliberately cultivate mistakes, misreadings or mis-hearings in your work? How?

What are some examples of things you heard wrong that actually worked better that way?

Do you ever find that mistakes you make on a creative project end up taking the work in new directions or enhancing the finished work?

John T. Unger is an artist, designer, entrepreneur and impossibility remediation specialist. He pioneered catablogging at and is also lead author and developer at Follow John on Twitter.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Love the “Leadership is preaching what you practice.” Sadly that is what it should be but all too frequently it is not the reality in a good portion of the business world today.

  2. “…reversing, inverting, subverting, or combining random statements…” What a great way to spend the day.

    I don’t deliberately cultivate the miss-hearings and mistakes – they seem to happen with plenty of frequency on their own. Although I get nervous when everything seems to be going too smoothly… Almost feels as if we aren’t trying hard enough.

  3. I’m wondering if I am ever going to see a beer commercial that utilizes the ‘Heineken maneuver’.

  4. If you don’t allow your mistakes to create some type of new creative action, you’re kind of snoozing through opportunity. Many of mistakes, have just been the first step before discovering what I was really supposed to be doing.

  5. I do something similar that’s very effective, particularly when facing a challenge. I call it “inside out / upside down” thinking.

    One of the steps I take is to change my physical viewpoint. For example, instead of sitting at my desk to write or work through a problem, I’ll take pen and pad and either sit or lie down on the floor for a bit.

    It’s amazing how viewing my surroundings from a different perspective than normal opens my thinking / creative “door” to new approaches and solutions for the issue or project at hand.

    Daniel Edlen is an extremely talented artist and edgy, creative thinker…

    “Leadership means preaching what you practice.”

    I missed that particular tweet, but it’s far more inspiring and memorable than the original.

    Love this post, John.

  6. Hey, thanks for quoting me, John! Cool. You really are a great writer WITH great ideas, so I’m glad they’ve got you onboard here.

    You think. You’re awake. Rare.

    Huh, “catablogging”. Just saw that. Brilliance.

    For me, when the Universe’s feedback is not what I was expecting, it means I did something wrong. So like if I’m driving and running into traffic no matter what lane I shift to, I’m just not supposed to get wherever at the speed I was hoping. I try to just role with it, like Siddartha, like water. I also do try to look for the message the Universe is sending. What am I supposed to learn here?

    Usually, it’s just that everything’s going to be alright and things happen for a reason. That reason simply isn’t for us to know before we’re supposed to know. Frustrating for a big-picture person to not be privy at all times to the future plan, but that’s how it works.

    As we are all part of Life, but peninsulas (not islands) individualized away from it enough to not be quite able to see the mainland.

    Hey, Mary Anne, thanks for the compliment too.


  7. I don’t usually cultivate mistakes or try to re-interpret what others say. I’ll be trying that today with my coffehouse writing group.

    I do have a story though. The day I got my dog, my mother and I were brainstorming names to call him… Elvis, Merlin, CloudCover…. He’s a white dog with a black streak and we like weird names.

    We had been brainstorming for almost an hour w/o luck and finally I decided to be rediculious. “CRISCO” I shouted. I’ll call him “Crisco.” Its white, fluffy, & sometimes messy. Except my mother exclaimed “Yes! Frisco. That’s a perfect name.” she said.

    And Frisco has stuck for over 10 years. Everyone thinks he was named because I love San Francisco or because he’s frisky…. but he was actually named after cooking lard.

  8. lilomerlin says:

    Hey John, thank you for this post.
    Somehow I have to comment here.
    1. yes, but initially they often make me seem plainly ignorant 🙂
    2. yes yes yes yes…How will be expained (I keep that one after proofreading 😉 (explained: asap)
    3. Don’t go too far ! 🙂
    4. That was one main idea behind my online-“presence”.

  9. I heard this one a long time ago on TV: “…catch the tail by the tiger”

    It seems so to me just thinking about how to go about that.