Turning Mistakes into Mastery

Expect to make some mistakes. Nothing important will be accomplished if you only make ‘safe’ decisions.
— Warren G. Buffett

The late Gen. Bernard Adolph Schriever, widely regarded as the father and architect of the Air Force space and ballistic missile programs, was a big proponent of failure. I’m not saying that he enjoyed failing—no one does—but he understood the fundamental truth that in aerospace development: as in just about every other sector of life, if you haven’t blown a few things up, you are simply not pushing the bounds of innovation.

Operation PUSH National Headquarters
Operation PUSH National Headquarters

When I was a young aide to Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., my first big task was to organize and host a youth summit. Believe me when I tell you, I was ecstatic. I told the senior team at his organization, Rainbow PUSH, that we needed the biggest room in the building because we were going to have about a thousand students in attendance. And for those who think they already see where I went wrong, I didn’t just pull that number out of my hat. I had personally visited all the Chicago-area schools one-by-one – Depaul, Loyola, University of Illinois-Chicago, Roosevelt, Concordia, North Park, University of Chicago and my own alma mater, Northwestern – and I’d met with the Dean of Students or the appropriate head of student activities to ask each to commit to sending X number of students our way. Of course none of them formally committed, but all felt that the request was very reasonable and were optimistic about our prospects. When I calculated the final number, I made the assumption that each school would deliver about half of the number they thought they could deliver, and then I rounded down.

I put up flyers, took to social media, did radio spots and showered all of my friends with email blasts… I’m pretty sure by the time I was done there was no one under 30 in all of the Midwest who was unaware of this event. It was my first time planning anything of this type, but at this point, I was feeling pretty good.

Flash forward to the day. The summit was set to take place at 10:00am on a Saturday morning. It was 11:30am and I was borderline hysterical, on the phone with my mother in a dark corner of the hallway. Only six people had shown up.

What a humiliation. I was ready to resign on the spot. Luckily, my mother, being a much wiser person than I, told me to shake it off.

“So what if only a few people came? That’s a few people who cared enough to be there! Go back in there and show them that they made the right choice.”

I’ll never forget how smart those simple words were.

I bucked up, marched back into that room, and had one of the most engaging discussions I’d ever had about Civil Rights, sexual identity, immigrants’ rights, violence prevention and access to education. Rev. Jackson made a brief appearance, but there was a palpable hunger in that room; a passion to do more than any of us had seen done before. And we were ready.

ATOM (Access to Opportunity Movement) Mural

Six months later, we started ATOM (Access to Opportunity Movement), an organization for young people, by young people, focused on giving a platform on the issues that matter to the people most affected by them. Over time, we grew in membership and scope, forming our own nonprofit and advising folks ranging from the U.S. Department of Education and the Chicago Public School system to political candidates and other youth-focused institutions like ours. We played a key role in the development and passage of legislation which effectively made Illinois the most progressive state in the union at the time on immigrants’ rights and pushed several elite universities, including my own alma mater, to increase their support and funding of non-traditional and underprivileged students.

That “failed” summit of six people led to some of the best and most productive days of my life.

The fact is, when you are wading waist-deep into unknown territory, you are going to run into a few bumps you didn’t account for. You should expect it. In fact, it’s necessary.

Margaret Mitchell once said that, “Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” The key is to remain flexible and to keep pushing. And sometimes we find out that although the road we planned to take is closed, the detour will get us to the same ultimate destination while showing us things right around the corner that we never knew existed.

I may not have been blowing up rockets like the teams working for Gen. Schriever, but to this day, I still make it a habit to embrace failure and continue to push the limits. It’s the only way I know how to learn.

PS: Advice to my current employer, which happens to be an aerospace company: don’t let me too close to the test stand!

This article originally appeared on beingakubuiro.com.

By Bradley Akubuiro

Bradley has served as an advisor on communications, strategy, and policy to several internationally renowned figures and organizations ranging from Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and the Governance Commission of Liberia to business leaders in the health care and aerospace industries. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Bradley currently serves on the Steering Committee for the Northwestern University Center for Leadership.