Making Mistakes Matter

 

Maneuvering the waters of a creative job, like most jobs, is often no easy task. As we navigate the ocean of a project, at the bottom of the swell of each task lies the craggy rocks of potential mistakes. We are often able to steer clear and sail smoothly, but sometimes we hit the rocks, or the rocks hit us. Mistakes are a fact of life and a part of any job; the key to dealing with mistakes is making them useful to you professionally and creatively.

Own Up and Be Accepting

Early in my career I was working on a compilation of classic 80s arcade games. This was not just a simple port from arcade to handheld. We had to rebuild most of the content from scratch from the pixel art to the programming logic to the sound effects and music. The sound effects were their own challenge, and taught me a great deal about both simple and FM synthesis. Unfortunately when it came to the music, I tried my best to make it sound like the original pieces, but my best fell far short of the bar. I was so inexperienced or oblivious– I can’t quite remember which– that I thought my butchering of these tunes was “good enough.” Once my boss heard them, however, it was a different story. He told me I needed to go back and fix every song and make sure it matched identically to the original. So I tried to fix things, but my ear was never trained to be as musically attuned as I may have pretended. I made some more tweaks and again felt they were “good enough,” but some notes were off by a step, other melody lines were completely out of key. Regardless, I figured I was done with the project. Upon a final review with my boss, he freaked out (rightfully so) and took it upon himself to fix all of the music across the six individual games. Not only did I feel bad making him do the work I was tasked to do, but I also lost his trust which I then had to spend the next couple years gaining back. Since then, I have been more acutely aware of my own shortcomings and been much more candid about them from the outset. This isn’t to say I shy away from challenge, but I also keep in mind my own limitations, schedule, etc. In retrospect, I should have approached my boss from the beginning with my concerns and sought a solution whereby we could have had someone else handle the music portion of the project which would have avoided the trouble and his additional workload at the end.

It’s a hard lesson to learn: swallow your pride and own up to your mistakes. Admitting our mistakes is crucial to understanding when we may be most prone to making mistakes, and thus able to identify potential problems early on. If something is outside of your comfort zone, attack it provided you have the time, but don’t be afraid to ask for assistance or feedback from others. If someone else has already blazed the path, chances are they can help you navigate it as well.

Mistakes can seem to happen almost as much as we eat, drink or sleep; coming across as an inevitability of life. And it can be really difficult not just to own up to your mistakes, but to accept them. Making mistakes is a part of life, and a part of every job, it’s a part of what makes us human. We probably make more mistakes than any other life-form in the universe! What makes mistakes valuable is what we take away from them. They give us a unique experience we can learn from. This ability to learn from a misstep is the greatest gift a mistake provides. Learning from a mistake does not necessarily mean you aren’t going to make the same mistake again, but hopefully if you do, you’ll make it in a different way. If we are constantly learning from our mistakes, we are refining our process or technique and becoming better at whatever it is we keep messing up. Ideally, mistakes lessen the more we perform a task, and before you know it, you may even become an expert. You will likely be an expert who makes mistakes sometimes, and that’s okay.

Take advantage

While mistakes can be frustrating, embarrassing or even crushing, they can also be a doorway to creativity. Without mistakes we would be without some amazing things in this world like penicillin, Corn Flakes and even the multi-layered sound design of Spider-man Web of Shadows. I don’t claim that my accident in any way helped society like penicillin, but I can attribute my personal discovery of modular sound design to a mistake.

I was working on some of the sounds tied to the visual effects of Spider-man’s melee attacks. After I was content with my design, I bounced out my wave files and imported them into Wwise. I was crunching like crazy and my mind was operating on auto-pilot. I don’t think I auditioned the sounds or anything; just popped them in, built the game and fired it up. What I heard didn’t sound at all like the sounds I had designed. Playing them back in Wwise, I heard the same oddness, but hadn’t done anything to them in the tool short of some pitch randomization. I went back to my DAW session and saw that I had a couple of the tracks with my lower frequency sounds muted. I had muted them to tweak the mid and higher frequency content and forgot to unmute before bouncing the files out. That’s when my mistake clicked and rather than unmute the tracks and spit out my 5 variations, I realized I could split out my sounds in ways that made sense sonically and have 3 layers of sound for this one event and thus have 125 possible variants of the sound instead of just 5! I then started reusing these micro-assets throughout the project where they were appropriate and built up a huge library of sounds this way to provide us with broad variation using a modest number of assets. Nowadays this technique is common practice, but for me, in 2007, it was a revolutionary idea I accidentally stumbled upon by forgetting to press a button.

Most people have a handful of similar stories. Messing up can be a great opportunity to frame your work in a different way and possibly come up with some new sound, concept or process you would not have thought of otherwise.

Making mistakes is frustrating. It can be embarrassing. It can be demoralizing. But making mistakes is healthy too. They can teach us to be humble. They can teach us right from wrong, and they can show us new creative ideas we may have never stumbled upon otherwise. Here’s to mistakes! In a field where creativity and personal growth are important aspects of the job, mistakes matter.

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