Making mistakes is an important part of life, says Charles Handy
My friend Raji emailed me from Mumbai. “We have a new saying in Mumbai, Charles,” he wrote. “I thought you might like it. It goes like this: ‘Sometimes the wrong train leads you to the right destination.’” No, he wasn’t talking about the chaotic railway system in Mumbai; he was talking about life and fate. And I knew from my own life exactly what the saying meant.
When I left university, I wanted a good long-term job, and to earn enough money to support a family. I applied to Shell International Oil Company. My parents didn’t really approve but they made no comment and when I left to go to my first posting in Singapore, my mother drove me to the airport. I looked miserable and a bit apprehensive so she wound down the window as I left and said, “Never mind, dear, it’ll all be great material for your books.”
“Books, Mother?” I said. “I’m off to be an oil executive and get rich.”
“Yes dear,” she said, with her kind, disapproving voice.
So off I went to Singapore where they posted me to Borneo to run their marketing company in Sarawak, surrounded by jungle and rivers.
I wasn’t very good at as a manager so in the end I went and bought a load of management books, all American, and sat down to study them. I was appalled at how badly written they were, and how boring. So I suddenly decided I could write them much better.
I took parts of them, the theories, copied them down, and wrote them out in my best English (I thought I was a pretty good writer, modelling myself on Ernest Hemingway, with short snappy sentences). And I illustrated it all with exotic stories of my time in Borneo, most of which was pretty disastrous, but as I said to the readers: you only learn by making mistakes, and as it’s so much better to learn from somebody else’s mistakes than your own, here are mine…
The book was surprisingly successful. It sold 10,000 copies in a month when it came out and went on to sell 1,000,000 around the world by the end of the year. I then got requests from other publishers to write more books and so I became a writer. I also went around the world talking about the ideas in the book to endless groups of business executives, for which they paid me a lot of money.
So I ended up doing what I love doing, which was writing and telling stories, and being paid for it.
With that in mind, I wrote back to my friend in India and said, “I got on a train that I hoped was going to lead me to Shell International but instead it took me to Penguin and the BBC, and Souvenir Press and to a life that I love and seem to do quite well at. Thank you very much for your Mumbai saying. I will pass it on to my grandchildren.”
So to my grandchildren I say this: experiment in your 20s before you have a family and a mortgage, because then if you fail it doesn’t matter and you’ll learn a lot from your mistakes. Get on whatever train you think might be interesting and see where it takes you.