Make More Mistakes

When I was at university, a very bright guy on my residence floor, had a saying.  “I was wrong once.  I thought I had made a mistake, but it turns out I really didn’t.”  I have occasionally wondered how he deals with adversity.

I think you don’t learn much by being right.  Being wrong on the other hand, has many positive aspects.  It depends on how you perceive the mistake and what you do about them.

If you see the mistake as an assault on your personhood, then you might not learn a lot from it.  Feelings of anger, guilt, aggression and shame may overwhelm the lesson with the result that the lesson is wasted.

Blaming is the most common manifestation of this and blaming does not work.  Worse, while blaming is a serious mistake, it is one that never teaches.

What to do?

First assess who needs to learn the lesson.  If it is you, then pause and assess the nature of the error.  Can you see what went wrong and what could have happened if some other choice had been made?  If no, go back farther and check some more.  Frequently errors are designed in.  You may need to alter the design.  It is always wrong to assume that you can just pick an expedient step from where you presently find yourself.  Revisit the Greedy Algorithm.

American quality expert, W. Edwards Deming made a big career out of studying mistakes and using statistical techniques to find the cause.  He did not spend a lot of time and trouble studying the things that met the standard.  “Nothing to see here folks, move along.”

Once you know what happened, you need to decide what you can do about it.  If anything. Sometimes, it just is and you need to adapt and minimize rather than repair.

If someone else has made the mistake, then you need to counsel them to the point where they can see the mistake as part of an educational process.

“You better believe there will be times in your life
When you’ll be feeling like a stumbling fool
So take it from me you’ll learn more from your accidents
Than anything that you could ever learn at school”

(C) 1985, Billy Joel, “Second Wind”

Mistakes are your friends.  If you learn from them.  You paid the price , learn how to get the benefit.  Teach children early and often.  Mistakes are how you learn.  If you get 45 out of 50 on a math test you could say that’s good.  If you find that all five of the mistakes were really just a single thing the child did not know, then the mistakes are more valuable than the correct answers.  Like Deming.

Learn that mistakes are objective.  They say nothing about the person.  You are not a bad person because you could not calculate the square root of 2 in your head.  Some things are so difficult that mistakes are the norm. If you are a professional baseball player and as a batter you make mistakes only 7 out of 10 times, they will pay you a salary upwards of $10,000,000 per year.

Everything is that hard when you first see it.

You cannot allow anyone, including yourself, to take mistakes personally.  They say nothing about you.  They are merely part of the ongoing test of life.  Life expects error. Life is harder than hitting a baseball.  You can make life harder by refusing to learn.  John Wayne says, “Life is tough, but it is tougher if you are stupid about it.”

Avoiding mistakes is the biggest mistake.   Adopt the theme of a baseball team of 9-year-olds I coached.

“If you think you can, you might.  If you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Children’s sports are like life.  It is competitive.  It is difficult.  It is measurable   It is an ongoing process of improvement.  It is fun.  It is sometimes not fair.  There are others to help you.

Perfection is unattainable and its pursuit distracts you.  In life it is usually better to be proficient at many things than to be near perfect at one thing.  You get there by trying a lot of things and learning something from what you do wrong.

Give yourself and those around you permission to fail.  Expect them to do so and expect them to be the better for it.  Help them to grow and share their knowledge.  Notice early on that the mistakes of others are the cheapest kind to learn from.

Please be sure the mistakes you permit are non-lethal.

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.

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