March 23, 2011
The benefits of making mistakes
“Writers don’t die of typhus,” goes one of my favorite quotations from the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer. “They die of typos.”
Alina Tugend, however, is one writer who sees errors as an opportunity for redemption and improvement both for individuals and institutions. Indeed, as she argues persuasively in “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” (Riverhead Books, $25.95), the world is actually a much better place when we acknowledge — and learn from — our mistakes.
“[T]he fear of making mistakes is a cudgel that hangs over so many of us,” Tugend writes, “preventing us from not only taking risks in our personal and professional lives, but even more important, really accepting — not just giving lip service to — the truth that we are all human and imperfect.”
Tugend, a New York Times columnist and daughter of Jewish Journal contributing editor Tom Tugend, is quick to concede to that “[n]ot all mistakes are alike,” and the consequences can vary from trivial to catastrophic. “We usually judge the severity of a mistake by the outcome,” she explains, pointing out that a typo ranks lower on the “scale of consequences” than, say, a mistake by a surgeon or an airline pilot. But she insists that “the odds against an error-free performance of any kind seem overwhelmingly high.” For that reason, she challenges us to consider why and how we make mistakes, what we can learn from our mistakes, and why mistakes are essential to avoiding yet more mistakes.
Tugend is interested in what she calls “the ‘good’ part of mistakes,” which she regards as essential tools for detecting and correcting problems. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that the mistakes themselves are good, but their aftermath — tracing back why we made them and what we learned from them — can be very helpful in avoiding mistakes in the future.”
But Tugend also addresses the most intimate aspects of our attitudes about making mistakes. She confesses to her own tendency to blame herself not only for her own mistakes but for her children’s mistakes, too. “Not only do I feel bad about my children paying a price for their blunders, but I suspect that other parents are judging both me and my children, and finding us wanting,” she writes. “Intellectually, I know it’s ridiculous, but deep down, where I scold myself over every mistake, where a persistent belief that I should be perfect clings tenaciously, I believe it.”
Fear of making a mistake, in fact, can be crippling. “[W]hat psychiatrists call maladaptive perfectionists need to be the best at everything, and if they make a mistake, it’s a crisis,” she explains. “Even worse, they don’t learn from their mistakes because if, God forbid, one occurs, it should be concealed like a nasty secret.”
The same phenomenon is at work in every aspect of family and work life, as Tugend points out. The CEO of one company was distressed to find an approval process that required every new idea to be subjected to “275 checks and sign-offs,” all because of the institutional fear of making a mistake along the way. When he streamlined the process to a mere 75 decision points, “the result was a higher innovation rate.”
Paradoxically, a more relaxed approach to errors can actually make us safer in some circumstances. At one hospital, for example, administrators encouraged staff members to “figure out how the system failed” by, among other things, replacing “error reports” with “an ‘Improve the Process’ form.” The “no-blame culture” resulted in a sharp increase in the number of medication errors that were reported, and the disclosure meant that the underlying problems could be addressed and resolved.
Finally, the author considers the function of apology in a culture that is so resistant to admitting error. Apology and remorse are not necessarily one and the same thing: “Nothing offended commentators about President Clinton’s ‘apology’ in the Monica Lewinsky case more than its lack of regret.” She prescribes a formula for an effective apology: “[A]cknowledgment of a fault, regret for it, and responsibility.”
Throughout her charming and illuminating book, Tugend displays a winning sense of humor even as she fearlessly examines more serious aspects of making mistakes. “As much as people hate to make mistakes, they love point out ones others have made,” she cracks. “A number of readers couldn’t resist gleefully pointing out an editing typo. To those folks, I simply say: ‘Read this book.’ “