I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.
November 29, 2007 7:20 PM   Subscribe

A great quick read from the NYTimes. Why making mistakes is sometimes the best thing for us, and why we avoid it anyway.
posted by SeizeTheDay (26 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Daniel Dennett on How to Make Mistakes.
posted by inconsequentialist at 7:46 PM on November 29, 2007

Very timely for me - have printed out both of these. Thanks.

I had a series of interviews today with executives at a Fortune 500. Every one of them talked about the company's focus on "flawless execution." I found it very intimidating, which may have been the point - to weed out the weak. I don't thrive in an environment where I'm scared to make a mistake, because I inevitably do it regardless. And thankfully live to tell the tale every time.

I made a mistake on Monday and one of my coworkers said, "Nobody grovels better than you." Flawless execution on the groveling, at least.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:05 PM on November 29, 2007

The Dweck study mentioned in this article was the subject of a previous Mefi post.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:24 PM on November 29, 2007

A man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery. - James Joyce, Ulysses
posted by any major dude at 8:31 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

To pursue Sweetie Darling's comment: there are some wonderful management studies showing that people who have had more successes have also had the most failures. They have tried more things, then been quick to abandon the things that weren't working. But their willingness to entertain a variety of possibilities is a great predictor of finding something among the possibilities that succeeds.

I pretty much agree with the thrust of this article. Much of the literature in education deals with the cultivation of perseverance, which is somewhat endangered in today's educational culture - which demands good results from every test and penalizes poor results. Kids give up very easily these days; if it doesn't come quickly, it doesn't seem worth the trouble.
posted by Miko at 8:32 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Kids give up very easily these days; if it doesn't come quickly, it doesn't seem worth the trouble.

Tell me about it! I tried three times to explain perseverance to my kid, and it still didn't seem to sink in. I think it's hopeless.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:43 PM on November 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

Upon reading the article, wrt previous posts; there are times for executing something flawlessly and there are other times where you can try things out and risk making mistakes.

The former are like times where you've done the same thing correctly many times over and this time it *really* matters that it's done right. Sure - not making a mistake is pretty important and the only excuse here is that one got sloppy or force majeur.

I definitely agree that the "reward results" paradigm of elementary education needs improvement, but I've also seen "effort praise" methods of teaching that produce self-absorbed, spoiled, and otherwise useless people.

Yes, different people learn optimally from different strategies, &c&c.
posted by porpoise at 9:19 PM on November 29, 2007

If you didn't avoid making mistakes, would they actually be mistakes? I mean, isn't what defines a mistake, is that it's something you should have avoided doing?
posted by XMLicious at 9:49 PM on November 29, 2007

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

I did have a lot of first dates...
posted by maxwelton at 10:18 PM on November 29, 2007

Good points in the article. Thanks.
Oops is my favorite four-letter word.
posted by nickyskye at 10:59 PM on November 29, 2007

Timely for me too, thanks.
posted by salvia at 11:00 PM on November 29, 2007

Thanks for this. I've been raised never to make mistakes, or else I would never hear the end of it. Even something that didn't work out (for reasons beyond me) ends up being my fault, which then teaches me that I can't trust my own decisions.

For example, in August I went to a youth conference organized by an American NGO hosted at the UN. I've always wanted to go to the UN, so I jumped at the opportunity and paid quite a substantial amount of money for it (I found out about it the day fees were due). Unfortunately it was not very well-organized and wasn't really worth the price or the hassle. Oh well, there are other youth conferences, and since then I've been to many that were a lot better (and often free!).

In a couple of weeks I'll be off to another conference to volunteer as their media person. To do this I'll need to be out of state for a few days, so I'm trying to talk to my dad to coordinate transport and accommodation (a cousin is coming at the same time so I could stay with him). OVER AND OVER my parents (mostly my dad) keep telling me about how I "shouldn't just trust everything you hear about conferences" because the UN one wasn't so great and who's to say this one would be good? Because the UN one wasn't worth it, EVERY conference is now a joke and a scam. And no matter how much research I do online about the organization, about the event, about the place (It's KL, a city I used to live in for goodness sake) my dad still says I'll be making a big mistake.

Never mind all the other times I've done stuff on less notice and less research time, and came out fine (I had to make a last-minute trip to Stockholm within a week. Potential for disaster was fine but it actually worked out pretty well.). Never mind all the other conferences and events I went to that went absolutely brilliantly. Because of ONE CONFERENCE, my dad now thinks that everything I look up is a scam.

Right now I'm trying to reorganize my life and my mum keeps telling me "have a plan have a plan have a plan". And not only must I have a complete plan for the REST OF MY LIFE, it must also be foolproof and perfect with no potential for messing up. Whenever I *do* come up with something, my mum shrieks "but what if that doesn't work!? Can you really do that?!" Even just having some time where nothing is planned (the best things I've done tended to be spontaneous) is unacceptable.

Mistakes are FORBIDDEN in my family. It drives me nuts. It's gotten to the point where I'm too scared to do anything because I'm so worried that I'll mess up. And if I mess up I will FOREVER be haunted about it, about how I made such a BIIIIIG mistake and how I can't be trusted. Over and over and over bloody over. The only thing that propels me to do stuff anyway nowadays is to think "screw the parents". But that's a hard HARD step to take. (Either that or I end up doing what THEY want me to do, so at least if that messes up I can blame them. And it usually messes up anyway because it's not what I'm interested in.)

any ideas on how to get over this? It's almost paralysing. I pride myself on being spontaneous and all that but really I'm just a big chicken.
posted by divabat at 11:36 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh that's it! Fail forward. It's all good.

I wonder what Casey Serin is up to these days?
posted by cytherea at 1:02 AM on November 30, 2007

I've noticed in the courses I take (graduate-level) that most of the students are very nervous about speaking up, because they don't want to be wrong. It's a mindset that baffles me-- I have always thought that learning was about the conversation, the development of ideas, trying out one thing, finding it doesn't work, and then trying something else.

But this type of study is illuminating, especially insofar as the students in my program are mostly 10 years younger than I am, and more likely to have gone to schools where they encouraged praise only for correct answers.

Divabat, I think the only way you're going to get around this problem is not involving your parents in your plans. Don't tell them about stuff. If they ask, deflect them. This might be difficult if you're living with them. But give it a try. It's really not their business what your overall life plan it, let alone what conference you're going to next week, if you're over 18 and not asking them to pay for it. (If you are, stop.)
posted by miss tea at 4:21 AM on November 30, 2007

miss tea: I spend summers with them (like right now, really) and I live in the middle of nowhere (and can't drive) so I do rely on them for some things, mainly transportation (public transport sucks here). Even when I'm further away though, if I don't tell them what I'm doing, they start getting all panicky and accusing me of "abandoning" them just because I haven't spoken in a few days. I have some money, but not much (so if I have to pay for something more than a few hundred, they pay) and my credit card is tied to Dad's. Can't cut the purse strings till I get outta uni or get some job that pays me $41k a year (damn immigration). *

When I was younger the house phone didn't work and I was away from my mobile so I didn't answer it immediately. Next thing I know, someone from my dad's office shows up at the front door and asks "TIARA! You ok?" Turns out my dad had rung, and when he didn't get me he sent someone over to check that I was OK!

For my last-minute trip to Sweden, I waited till I had the ticket and the visa in my hands (more the visa, because it was such a sudden trip and was most likely to go wrong) before I told them (they would wonder why I was incommunicable for two weeks). At least then they can't say no. They were part laughing, part shocked, and part yelling at me for using the "university and house deposit money" on a seemingly frivolous trip (it was for an admissions workshop for these people). I was too stressed with 192019 things to enjoy it fully, but I'm so glad I did it because it was totally independent. My own hostel, my own issues, blah. Somehow that doesn't really register with them.

fwee, I'm ranting. Oh well. Make it a note for all you Mefsters with kids: don't rant at them when they make a not-so-great choice once in a while. The world doesn't end.

* On a student visa I can only work 20 hours a week and no job I will find on that time - if I can find ANY - will pay me enough for ANYTHING, unless it's porn. The $41k/year is the minimum salary I will need if I decide to get a work permit after my degree, anything else and the permit isn't valid (or I need a different employer-sponsored permit). Considering I'm mainly qualified to work in the arts, and a bunch of arts companies just got their funding cut, this will be difficult if not impossible.
posted by divabat at 5:07 AM on November 30, 2007

I grew up in a family of scientists and teachers, so I was raised on a steady diet of "do the best you can do at that time", and "if you don't understand, ask questions until you do!". In school, I was that annoying kid in the class with her hand up asking questions.

Then I got to the working world, and the first steady job I took, I was informed that my work was not acceptable because the manager had to send it back for corrections. It was made clear that management didn't consider me cut out for the work because I couldn't do it perfectly the first time.

I was a fairly happy kid growing up, but spiralled into a mild depression when I started working. That tells me everything I need to know about the value of making mistakes.
posted by LN at 5:30 AM on November 30, 2007

RE: LN; All the statistics dig duplicate entry submission.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:20 AM on November 30, 2007

Being willing to make mistakes is especially important in mathematics. "If 90% of the ideas you generate aren't absolutely worthless, then you're not generating enough ideas." -Michael Artin
posted by parudox at 8:22 AM on November 30, 2007

An afterthought, I love the thought that if one hasn't failed, made mistakes, then one hasn't really tried. Without trying, there can be no success. So mistakes are inherent in the success process.
posted by nickyskye at 8:40 AM on November 30, 2007

Force-fed piano lessons and mandated daily practice from 2nd grade through HS gave me a damn good idea where the fruits of talent end and where the need for effort begins. Thanks mom and dad.
posted by klarck at 10:38 AM on November 30, 2007

Thanks, Smart Dalek. Metafilter spazzed out on me this morning as I was posting this.
posted by LN at 12:56 PM on November 30, 2007

This pressure to be perfect is particularly intense for girls and young women, according to a recent Girls Inc. study called The Supergirl Dilemma. The report stresses the importance of supporting young people in taking healthy risks and embracing mistakes as learning opportunities.
posted by cmaddie at 4:28 PM on November 30, 2007

Just want to say, I agree with this article. The pressure I have gotten over the years from parents, employers, etc. to not make any mistakes has at times been unbearable. On the other hand, if you work in a printshop, mistakes are the bane or your existence...
posted by blue shadows at 1:14 AM on December 2, 2007

Of. See there I did it again.
posted by blue shadows at 1:15 AM on December 2, 2007

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