Discussion #10 – The Science (and Art) of Making Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes so why can’t you? – Big Bird, Sesame Street

Life is all about making mistakes. As we age, interrogating our own personal histories for mistakes yields more and more useful lessons, for those who wish to go through the exercise (it’s painful to do so). Whether it is in a performance review at work, on stage, in sport or just a quiet reflective moment at home, there is nothing quite as fruitful as constructively inspecting your mistakes and learning from them.

Mistakes are information wrapped in pain. They seem to be very good at compressing a lot of information into a small package. If you think of adaptation and evolution as an information processing system, then mistakes (errors, evolutionary dead-ends) are the primary way to glean information about the environment for the system.

In tonight’s discussion, we start with personal anecdotes that show the same quality – mistakes we have made that have become touchpoints for our own lives. Mistakes which have become something much bigger and much more positive.

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What would the world be like if no one ever made a mistake? What would a universe without error look like? Would evolutionary processes grind to a halt? Could we ever have got out of the primordial soup without our propensity to make errors?

But then again what is a mistake? If something was a good idea “at the time”, it only become a mistake later in time. This binary judgement (mistake/not a mistake) cannot be applied to the event, but only to the complete system in time and space (action + time + consequence). And even then, whether or not something was ‘wrong’ depends a lot on your frame of reference as an observer.

2014-06-28 21_56_13-Mistake on Dilbert.com

Our culture is schizophrenic about mistakes. We pay lip service to the ancient ideas of empiricism and learning by “trial and error”, but our world is theory driven and in love with optimization, which implies the removal of redundancy and error. Our default position is to design our lives in such a way as to minimize our opportunities for making mistakes.

But you have to do it wrong to do it right. To learn what not to do. A life/world without error is dead, boring and sterile.

As Gentlemen Scientists we have made more than their share of mistakes. But mistakes plus attention equal learning. Perhaps a good life is not making less mistakes but always making new mistakes. Plus being aware of your fallibility – having the courage to say “I was/could be wrong”.


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1On Making Mistakes, Scientific America, 20th February 2014 – “Once you ask a scientist to stop making mistakes you stop him or her from discovering.”

2How Mistakes Can Make You Smarter, Psychology Today – “”View decisions as experiments””

3Impostor syndrome – a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds.

4 – I love this anecdote from Prosunjit Biswas about cooking a Bengali dish called ‘mishti doi’ – he had to get it wrong in a high profile situation before he really learnt what not to do.

5Dennett says here that “sometimes you don’t just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them — if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix.”

6The Black Swan – by Nicholas Nassim Taleb

7When Life Was Odd – Discover Magazine

8Imagine a spider catching flies. If the spider always gets his prey and never fails to catch a fly, would that mean that spiders flourish or would that mean that eventually spiders die out. Do we need mistakes to grow and flourish. Are errors the food of life.

9The Meaning in Mistakes – about musicians and mistakes

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