mistaks were maid

Last Tuesday, like most Tuesdays, I wrote my “Taste of Tuesday” email newsletter. I mentioned the attack on Salman Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses was published during my senior year of high school.

Reading Rushdie’s work over the years made an impression on me. The attack made an even bigger impression. I don’t like the fact that America is an intolerant and violent country.

When I wrote about Rushdie I made a mistake. I typed the year of Rushdie’s publication (and my own high school graduation) as 1998 (NINETY eight), instead of 1988 (EIGHTY eight).

It was a minor thing – it’s not like I taped over the original recordings of the moon landing – but my mistake did not go unnoticed. Readers called me on it. “I thought we were the same age!” “That’s not when Rushdie wrote the book!” “Are you trying to act younger than you are?” “Hey, we graduated together, dipshit!” (That last one is a direct quote from a good friend who is a highly regarded professional with a well-known podcast.)

It’s nice to know that people are paying attention.

Since I did actually graduate high school in 1988, and I am actually 52 (and a half!) years old, I don’t mind making mistakes in front of people as much as I did when I was younger. Sure, it bugged me a little at first – how could I hit the wrong key and not notice when I proofread? – but making mistakes is a big part of life, and a bigger part of learning.

As Hall of Fame UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden put it, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.”

Stupid Mistakes

Before anyone mistakes this for a Mistake Sanctuary, I’d like to point out that some mistakes are genuinely stupid. Makers of stupid mistakes are not themselves necessarily resistant to new or dissonant information (i.e., we shouldn’t automatically assume that they are as stupid as what they just did), but their actions are definitely attention-getters.

In a 2015 study entitled, “What is stupid?: People’s conception of unintelligent behavior,” Balazs Aczel and colleagues identified three categories of behavior that are commonly called “stupid mistakes”:

  1. Things people do when they have more confidence than skill. This phenomenon is also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it accounts for some of the most spectacular examples of stupidity, such as the man who robbed a bank without a disguise because he believed that he was invisible. Poor performers often simply don’t know any better. They can’t tell the difference between high and low quality, so they overrate themselves and drive the rest of us nuts.
  2. Things people do when they act on impulse. You don’t need to buy anything on display at the checkout stand. Congressman, you don’t need to text that picture of your genitals. Whenever you do something that indicates a lack of control over your impulses, you are buying a ticket to Stupidmistakesville.
  3. Things people do when they stop paying attention. I personally believe that mindlessness is a bigger problem than Covid, Monkeypox, Polio, and today’s GOP put together, but lapses in attention are not all created equally. If you’re a pilot who forgets to lower the landing gear, or a surgeon who forgets to remove the forceps before closing, yeah, you’re making a high-stakes stupid mistake. That is very different than looking for the eyeglasses that you left on your forehead or rereading a sentence because you realize you don’t remember reading it the first time.

Do I Care?

Spoiler: Yes, I do. I care a lot. About arguably way too many people and issues.

When it comes to mistakes, I care mostly about two things.

First, I care about doing things with quality. I like knowing what I’m talking about and I like doing things well. I can’t stand the phrase “good job” – what does that even mean? – but I really like it when someone I respect compliments the quality of my work. I extend this care to everyone with whom I work – students, clients, colleagues… even my own family. I sincerely believe that excellence is a habit, even though it would be a mistake to continue attributing the idea to Aristotle, and I do my best to make quality contagious.

Second, I care about taking the kind of risk that helps me grow. Watch a beginner learn how to walk or learn how to ski. If they’re not falling, they’re not pushing themselves far enough to improve.

Living the second principle enables us to develop the understanding and skill that brings us to the first. It’s the ERROR part of trial and error that teaches us the most.

Don’t Be Too Careful

Too often, young people learn to act like they’re perfect. We don’t like admitting we don’t know something, or that we’re flat out wrong. That is a problem when it becomes a habit. Covering up mistakes may not seem like a big deal on a fourth grade math worksheet, but the child who doesn’t admit forgetting multiplication tables grows into the adult who doesn’t admit administering the wrong medication or forgetting the memo about the terrorist threat.

Feeling like it’s OK to make mistakes gives us the opportunity to explore and reflect. Plus, the process of making mistakes actually enhances our ability to learn. In a wonderful blog post entitled “How Making Mistakes Can Accelerate Learning,” performance psychologist and Julliard faculty member Noa Koyegama points to the findings of University of Sheffield professors Stafford and Dewar (2013): “Greater initial variation is linked to higher subsequent performance.” That’s a diplomatic way of saying, “Screwing up in practice is the best way to win when it counts.” So much for perfect practice – better to take chances, get something wrong, figure out why, and correct your own work.

One of my favorite things about Open-Source Learning and the public internet in general is the opportunity it gives us all to improve through feedback. When I first encouraged high school students to start websites and curate their learning online, everyone thought I was nuts: “Aren’t you worried someone will post something inappropriate?”

Nope. Thousands of students and millions (billions?) of posts, comments, videos, and all sorts of digital artifacts later, there has been exactly one instance of a student posting something that another student found inappropriate. And what was the response?

“Hey, did you mean to post that?”

“Gah! No. Thanks for telling me – my mistake.”

Go Make New Mistakes

Whatever I do in life, I will always remain grateful for those people who give me honest feedback. My people are hard on ideas and soft on each other – if they seem like a tough crowd when it comes to evaluating quality, it’s because they care. What kind of friend doesn’t tell you about the spinach between your teeth or the toilet paper on your shoe?

I used to have a sign in my classroom: “You don’t have to be sick to get better.” It’s true for me. I did OK today. But it’s never perfect. At the end of each day I reflect on what I got wrong, forgot, didn’t finish, etc.

Those moments are dear to me. Tomorrow I’ll make different mistakes. But not the same ones I made today.

So, thank you in advance. Please feel free to Contact Me and let me know how I can do better.