Some Thoughts On Mistakes

Many years ago, I had a client who lost almost his entire business equity in a deal that went sour. His reaction was, “It’s probably a good thing. If it had worked, I would have done it much bigger next year and that would have been really bad.” He concluded with, “I have never learned a thing by being right.”

“I have never learned a thing by being right” is a thought to hold on to.

Teachers condition children to be right and to value being right. That is a function of teaching but it is not a function of learning. Getting 100% on a math test is not the same thing as knowing the material and almost certainly not an indicator that the child could use the material. If you are teaching people, the value is a right answer. When helping people learn, the value is a wrong answer.

Perfection is a trap. It is stressful. It is not achievable in anything beyond narrow skills and only arguably then. I might be able to play a piano piece perfectly, but if I did, some would say it lacks soul. However, I am in favor of surgeons, pilots, nuclear reactor builders and drug manufacturers who seek perfection.

If you can get a hit 3 times in 10 at bats, they will pay you millions. So much for the idea that a 70% failure rate is unacceptable. The failure rate should be relative to the task. If improvement matters, then failure is positive.

If you have a little perfectionist in the making, you can tell. Watch for procrastination. Someone seeking perfection does nothing until they can see how to make the task perfect. That may be a long time. More likely never. Watch for failure to hand in essays. Your expectations or the teacher’s expectations may have conditioned this response to be reasonable.

“Perfection – Procrastination – Paralysis” is a treatable syndrome.

The treatment recognizes the value of error and offers permission to have errors occur.

Learn that a mistake is your friend. A mistake you make when you are a child is an especially good thing. It has a small cost compared to the same mistake made as an adult. Blowing a month’s allowance at 15 is better than blowing a month’s salary at 35. Same lesson, lower price. But, only if you learn something from it.

The trick for parents is to unite the mistake and the lesson. Make them a package. Then add another piece to the package. A parent needs to provide an alternative behavior that shows how to overcome the mistake. Learning from a mistake means changing behavior.

Most people think that a sure sign of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. Alternatively, it means no one mentored the mistake maker.

There is a question of how long the lesson should be. Some lessons are required, so parental patience and persistence is necessary. Honesty, responsibility and getting along with others, for example. For things that don’t matter much, quit quick. Use a substitute or avoid the problem. Make sure it really is something that does not matter first.

What becomes obvious is that a good answer sooner, is usually better than a perfect answer delayed. In life, most people want answers sooner more than they want them righter.

In the end, we find that good decisions are the result of experience; and experience is the result of bad decisions. Avoiding situations that can lead to a mistake is a mistake.

Now for the important part.

The highest purpose of a mentor / educator is to help the student learn from mistakes that are not their own.

Tom Clancy says it best.

“Fundamentally he was an amateur – though a gifted one – who learned from his mistakes readily enough, but who lacked the formal training that might have enabled him to learn from the mistakes of others ……..”

Clear & Present Danger, © 1989 by Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd,

Experience is expensive, so why buy your own. Besides, you cannot live long enough to make all the mistakes. Remember, only a fool learns exclusively from his own mistakes.

Encourage situations for your children that have the prospect of failure as well as the prospect of success. Overcoming failure teaches more than regurgitating right answers. When you know the right answer, you know the right answer. When you fail and then learn the right answer, you know the answer, how it came to be the right answer and what limits it has.

Might want to think about how you train employees too. Or maybe how you behave yourself.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

One Comment on “Some Thoughts On Mistakes

  1. Pingback: The Value of Right | moneyFYI

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