Creativity Is Allowing Yourself to Make Mistakes. Art Is Knowing Which Ones to Keep

Scott Adams? Ricky Gervais? Douglas Adams? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator: Using creativity to solve a problem or create an artwork requires openness, originality, and imagination. Yet, the process inevitably produces some missteps and gaffes. That is why the following is my favorite quotation:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

This statement has been attributed to comedian Ricky Gervais, cartoonist Scott Adams, and science fiction humorist Douglas Adams. Would you please determine who the actual originator was?

Quote Investigator: In 1996 Scott Adams published “The Dilbert Principle” which comically argued that the least competent people moved into management positions. In the final chapter Adams set forth some of his own ideas about running a successful company: 1

In this chapter you will find a variety of untested suggestions from an author who has never successfully managed anything but his cats. (And now that I think of it, I haven’t seen the gray one for two days.)

Adams said the following about the error-prone nature of creativity. Boldface has been added to experts: 2

Finally—and this is the last time I’m going to say it—we’re all idiots and we’re going to make mistakes. That’s not necessarily bad. I have a saying: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Keep your people fresh, happy, and efficient. Set a target, then get out of the way. Let art happen. Sometimes idiots can accomplish wonderful things.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In October 2011 Ricky Gervais wrote an article about Twitter that appeared on the “Wired UK” website. Gervais included the saying about creativity while crediting Scott Adams: 3

Stephen Nachmanovitch said that, “Creative work is play. It is free speculation using materials of one’s chosen form”. Basically mucking about with the stuff you have in front of you. Experimenting with it, seeing what happens, and keeping the stuff you like I guess.

In fact Scott Adams said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” You have to let yourself go to be creative.

In 2013 Gervais was profiled on the “Fast Company” website, and while discussing creativity he used the saying; however, the reporter apparently misunderstood the ascription. The words were assigned to a different Adams: author Douglas Adams instead of cartoonist Scott Adams: 4

To make his point, Gervais reels off a torrent of quotes of writers and artists and filmmakers, though the one that’s most striking is from another sagastic, jesterly Brit: Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, who said that “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

In conclusion, QI believes that this quotation should be ascribed to Scott Adams. The actor comedian Ricky Gervais has employed the expression; however, he has credited Scott Adams. The incorrect attribution to Douglas Adams was constructed due to a confusion caused by the shared last name Adams.

(Great thanks to Lars Hegemann whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1996, The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams, Quote Page 315, HarperBusiness, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1996, The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams, Quote Page 324, HarperBusiness, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. Website: Wired UK, Publisher: Condé Nast UK, Article title: ‘I may have been wrong about Twitter’, writes Ricky Gervais, Article author: Ricky Gervais, Date on website: October 5, 2011, Website description: Technology news and culture. (Accessed on October 26, 2014) link
  4. Website: Fast Company, Article title: How To Be A Success At Everything: To Be More Creative, Study The Great Ricky Gervais Dicking About Theory, Article author: Drake Baer, Date on website: July 15, 2013, Website description: Business magazine. (Accessed on October 26, 2014) link