The Most Serious Mistake

One of my favourite themes is that “Mistakes are your friends”  There are reasons to seek mistakes.

  • Few are fatal and you probably know those before going in.  Try to avoid saying things like, “Hold my beer, I want to try something.”
  • You cannot be taught everything, so there must remain things that you don’t know.  Acting in those areas is error prone.
  • Learning is more valuable than being taught because your remember it better.
  • Knowing more is better than not knowing, even with the price of learning

The problem lies with ourselves.  Our ego gets in the way.  Nobody loves being wrong.

Some of us avoid mistake provoking situations or deny the mistake.  Denying the mistake might suit the ego better, but it means that you deny the lesson, too.  The first mistake provides the insight that there is something wrong with your plan or worldview.  Change a little.  Avoid hanging on to delusions.

Learning the complete lesson may require a few more mistakes to fully understand the point.  As Mark Twain has said, “A cat that jumps on a hot stove will not do so again, but it will not jump on a cold one either.”  Incomplete lesson.

Trial and error is a good teacher but it only works if you learn something each trial.  I think “Adaptive Management” sounds better.

Most highly skilled people have made and continue to make many mistakes.  They use a controlled technique.  The “Candidate decision.”  The trial part of trial and error.

They know that they cannot know everything and they know they can learn more by experimenting.  The line of “what I need to know” and the line of “what I do know” never come together, so how close do they need to be before acting?

Not very close as it turns out.  I would argue that if you know 40% of what is possible to know, it is time to start doing things.  Not just any things though.  Reversibility of your decision is an important variable at this stage.  I want to learn something, but I don’t want to be stuck in a bad situation.  Send scouts before you commit the army.

Scouting shows information but sometimes it shows things you previously knew nothing about.  The dreaded unknown unknown.

Every trial gets you closer to a final decision that, hopefully, will work.  Think dating.

One of my associates taught Toronto-born, major league first baseman Joey Votto how to swim.  Joey batted .311 last year which is very good.  (Not much to do with swimming though.)

Batting .311 hides a more useful fact.  He was out .689.  68.9% of the time he failed, or made a mistake.

By the way, they pay this guy that fails more than 2 out of 3 times $19,000,000 a year.

I don’t know Joey, but I know other professional athletes and I will bet he learned something every time he was out.  “Got me out with a curve inside on 1-2 did you.  Try it again in the 5th inning and see what happens.”

That is what life is about too.  Learn a little from everything that happens and use what you learn.  Stay in the game even if you are making two mistakes for every success.

Avoiding mistakes is a serious mistake.  Maybe the most serious mistake.


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

One Comment on “The Most Serious Mistake

  1. HI Don, life is a journey. Have you ever imagine that you and me is on the same train going to the graveyard? There’s no doubt in my mind and heart that is truth. Learning from failure is the ingredient of success; metals are metals and there’s nothing there for making decisions; but mistakes of the past and mistakes of the future can guide you for a better decision. No offense.

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