Making *Good* Mistakes
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
This week, I want to celebrate making mistakes – but the good kind. What “good kind?”, you may be asking. Most people tend think of mistakes as unfortunate inevitabilities to be avoided at all costs. I want to challenge your thinking on that assumption, and I’ll begin with a historical anecdote:
Long before the age of GPS navigation or google maps, sailors had a need to find out where precisely on the globe they were. As it turns out, this is no easy task without an array of satellites to pinpoint an exact location. How they solved this problem is revelatory about the nature of mistakes, and how we can use them to our advantage. What they would do is make a guess about their exact latitude and longitude – from which they could calculate exactly how high the sun would be in the sky, if they had miraculously chosen the precisely correct location. They didn’t expect that they were correct in their initial guess, and they didn’t have to. They could then measure the actual height of the sun in the sky, and compare the two values, which with a little bit of calculation could inform them how far off their original guess was, thereby revealing their actual location. Sharp!
While I don’t expect that you are planning to set sail across the seas (without a GPS device) anytime soon, there are several valuable lessons here for everyday life. First, endeavor not to hide your mistakes, from others, or especially from yourself. Treat each mistake you make as a fleeting opportunity to examine the bizarre accidents of thought that led to your blunder. It is only by focusing our attention on our mistakes in this way that we can learn clearly and precisely how to avoid similar situations in the future. The philosopher Daniel Dennett writes:
“…become a connoisseur of your own mistakes turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. …So when you make a mistake, learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and dispassionately as you can manage.”
The second lesson is that there are some processes that seem to require this kind of ‘guess-and-fix-it’ strategy to get started in the first place – and particularly so for more complex tasks. As founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review Kevin Kelly notes: "To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them." He adds:
"To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting and taking personal responsibility for the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is."
So, if you are trying your hand at making sourdough bread, be confident that your second loaf will be better than your first. Learning a new language? Your conversational ability will grow in direct proportion to your errors. Tackling Zoom meetings for the first time? The process will become less daunting with each iteration.
So get out there and start making some mistakes! But make them good mistakes – clear mistakes with definitive implications for how to improve over time, and get you closer to achieving your goals.