The Little Missile That Could (John Cleese’s Brilliant Near-Term Failure/Long-Term Success Metaphor)

John Cleese grew up fascinated by guided missiles. He was fascinated with them, “…in a way that normally only ugly ducklings or pirates or talking vermin enchant a child.”*

As a kid, guided missiles were a fascinating piece of wartime technology. As an adult, he realized they were a perfect metaphor to explain being ok with making mistakes so long as you stay on target.

Here’s how he tells it, by remembering a book his mother read him called, “Gordon the Guided Missile,”

Gordon the guided missile sets off in pursuit of its target. It immediately sends out signals to discover if it is on the right course to hit that target. Signals come back: “No, you are not on course. So change it up a bit and slightly to the left.”

And Gordon changes course as instructed and then, rational little fellow that he is, sends out another signal. “Am I on course now?” Back comes the answer, “No, but if you adjust your present course a bit further up and a bit further to the left, then you will be.” He adjusts his course again and sends out another request for information. Back comes the answer, “No, Gordon, you’ve still got it wrong. Now you must come down a bit and a foot to the right.”

And the guided missile goes on and on making mistakes, and on and on listening to feedback and on and on correcting its behavior until it blows up the nasty enemy thing. And we applaud the missile for its skill.

If, however some critic says, “Well, it certainly made a lot of mistakes on the way”, we reply, “Yes, but that didn’t matter, did it? It got there in the end.” All its mistakes were little ones, in the sense that they could be immediately corrected. And as a results of making many hundreds of mistakes, eventually the missile succeeded in avoiding the one mistake which really would have mattered: missing the target.

Small mistakes that trigger corrective behavior to keep us on track in service of a broader mission are critical. We have to make them. We can’t fear them. We have to embrace them.

It’s the source of all creativity – making the process safe enough to tinker, while staying focused enough to get results.

*For context, he was born in 1939 and the guided missiles of World War II certainly would have been topical.

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