Don’t panic – your biggest mistake could take you somewhere great (review of Terry O’Reilly’s My Best Mistake)

Gilbert and Clarke Swanson had a 236-tonne problem.

That’s how much unsold turkey the brothers were stuck with after the Thanksgiving of 1953. Their company didn’t have enough freezers so they stockpiled the birds in 10 refrigerated boxcars. To keep the compressors running, the gobbler express had to run back and forth across the United States.

While the frozen birds rode the rails, a Swanson salesman was flying Pan American Airways. His dinner was served on an aluminum tray with three compartments. He sent the tray to Swanson HQ and suggested selling the leftover turkey as frozen dinners with sides of potatoes and peas.

TV DINNER, 1954. Packaging for Swanson’s turkey TV dinner, 1954, designed to resemble a television set.

Swanson wasn’t the first company to sell frozen dinners. But they were the first to trademark TV Dinner and package the meals in boxes that looked like a wood-paneled television set.

Americans bought more than 33 million televisions in 1954. As they sat in front of their new TVs, they ate millions of Swanson TV Dinners. The company later added fried chicken, Salisbury steak, meatloaf and desserts and made a fortune. One of Swanson’s original trays is on display in the National Museum of American History.

What could’ve been a catastrophic mistake became a golden goose for Swanson and a cultural icon, says Terry O’Reilly, radio host, podcaster and author of My Best Mistake.

O’Reilly says there’s also a lesson to be learned for anyone who’s screwed up on an epic scale and fears it’ll cost them their job, business and reputation.

“If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s to embrace the obstacle. The answer to life’s most vexing moments is always sitting at the heart of the mistake, waiting patiently to be discovered.

“When you peel the problem like a banana, an opportunity slowly comes into focus. That opportunity may feel, in the moment, like a desperate gamble or a Hail Mary pass, but it’s often much more meaningful than that.”

Steven Spielberg threw a Hail Mary pass in 1974. Spielberg was at Martha’s Vineyard shooting Jaws. His first big movie was shaping up to be his last. He’d spent a fortune on three animatronic sharks that didn’t work in salt water. Spielberg didn’t have the time or money to build a better shark. So he rewrote the script for Jaws on the fly. 

No shark? No problem. We don’t see the shark until three quarters of the way into the movie and it’s on screen for a grand total of just four minutes.

Jaws became the first movie to make more than $100 million. It won three Academy Awards. John Williams’ score is ranked the sixth greatest by the American Film Institute. Jaws ushered in the summer blockbuster and launched Spielberg’s career.

“Obstacles often generate astonishing waves of creativity,” says O’Reilly. “Spielberg, faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, sat in his hotel room one night and asked himself, how would (Alfred) Hitchcock handle the situation? Then it came to him: what we can’t see is the most frightening thing of all.”

So whatever’s gone wrong, don’t hit the panic button just yet. Remember the Swanson brothers’ turkey train and Spielberg’s defective sharks. O’Reilly’s book includes 22 other inspirational stories of big screw-ups that turned into even bigger wins. If you can’t wait to for return of Ted Lasso on Apple TV, this book about believing in silver linings will hold you over.  

“When an epic mistake feels like it might be career-ending or debilitating or humiliating, when you feel like you may have lost your credibility, your livelihood or even your sanity, it might be destiny preparing you for what you’ve asked for all along,” says O’Reilly. “Just remember to ask one question – what is the hidden gift?”

The final word goes to Winston Churchill. “You never can tell whether bad luck may not after all turn out to be good luck…when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.