The Poltergeist Effect: How Allowing Mistakes to ‘Haunt’ You Can Derail Creativity and Success

Ask most people to tell you—in a single word—what they want most from life, and they’ll answer with one of the following: happiness, love, health or… success. What’s interesting, however, is that so few people make a serious run at achieving success for fear of making a mistake.

It’s something we’ve come to call The Poltergeist Effect, a phenomenon in which people allow themselves to be ‘haunted’ by long-dead and relatively small flubs, flops and failures from their past that, ironically, most other people will never even notice. 

They are ghosts only we seem to see. And even when people do notice them, these ‘mistakes’ have little to no impact on ultimate failure or success. The term poltergeist is the perfect description of these past errors that follow us around, long after their time has passed. Described in folklore as a spirit, ghost or troublesome manifestation of an imperceptible entity that haunts a person, poltergeists can scare us into a state of inaction that literally stops us, dead in our tracks.

But what if we could view these pesky memories for what they really are? Memories! Better still, what if we could change these haunting memories into friends we treasure with pride, rather than pushing them aside in an attempt to hide them from the world? 

To do that, we must first understand that mistakes and ‘screw-ups’ are natural, not supernatural. Fast-food giant McDonald’s has had its share of product and marketing blunders, including the McGratin, McDLT, McHotdog, McPizza, McPasta, and the McLobster. But, like all pesky poltergeists, these fast-food flubs eventually vanished into the woodwork of history, like one of Charles Dickens’ ‘ghosts of mistakes past,’ with barely a trace of their former existence. And then there’s Google.

One of the most successful companies in the world today, Google got where it is not because of their willingness to fail, but a willingness to fail spectacularly! A midnight stroll through Google’s product and service ‘graveyard’ reveals a number of haunting headstones, including Google Accelerator, Google Answer and Google Video (which tanked so badly they gave up and decided to buy another company that was also dabbling in video; a little outfit called YouTube). But these ‘headstones’ aren’t really headstones at all; they’re monuments to Google’s insistence that employees spend a significant percentage of their time working on personal projects that interest them, a policy that encourages creativity and virtually guarantees an endless stream of flops and failures.

Finally, you need look no further than the 1982 classic horror film, Poltergeist. The website lists a staggering seventy-three errors that are clearly visible in the movie—73! Yet Poltergeist—produced by one of the greatest movie-makers of all time, Steven Spielberg—owns the No. 84 spot on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films of all time. Genius has been described as ‘attention to detail.’ Maybe it is. But success in most endeavors doesn’t require ‘genius’… it requires action! And quick, decisive action almost always guarantees that you will make mistakes. How you decide to view these mistakes—to be scared and ‘haunted’ by them, or to embrace them with humor and pride—will ultimately determine your ability to move forward and achieve amazing things. Boo.


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