Better by Mistake

I’ve been thinking about mistakes lately, which led me to a wonderful book called Better by Mistake, written by Alina Tugend.

Tugend digs deeply into the subject, from everyday little blunders to serious, life-threatening errors. She looks at accidents versus negligence, industries where the stakes are high (such as medicine and aviation) and ultimately explores how cultural practices and values inform the way we think about mistakes overall.

Tugend also touches on what happens after a mistake is made, specifically making apologies, and that portion of her book was the inspiration of a previous post how to apologize.

How do we view mistakes?

Tugend opens the book with her motivation for writing it: she wanted to know why so many of us think of mistakes as bad, especially given the fact that most of us have, at some point or another, been told that mistakes are the key to learning.

This question electrified me.

If you’re afraid of making a mistake, you are not alone.

Indeed when I think about what I see in myself and others around me, I cannot come up with a single person I would feel comfortable saying they are clearly not afraid of making a mistake. (And if you know a person you’re confident is NOT, please introduce me to them!)

Now, this is not to say that we can’t feel the fear and move forward anyway. Just because we fear mistakes doesn’t mean we must be paralyzed and incapable of acting as a result.  Moving through fear and into action can be done, especially when it is practiced regularly.

And yet WHY are we afraid of making mistakes?

Tugend gives two reasons:

  • Mistakes are often punished. And since punishment is no fun, we strive to avoid the mistakes which are likely to bring it about.
  • We have a fixed mindset, meaning that we believe: my mistake = me being a failure.


How we address the mistakes of others matters. Especially children.

We must first establish the difference between an accident, error or blunder (my kid knocks the cup of milk with his elbow when reaching for the sandwich on his plate) versus negligence (the live-at-home adult child who’s instructed to keep the garden watered during a parents’ trip, yet blows it off and allows the vegetable patch to scorch through a week of July heat.)

Once we’ve established that an error is not negligence, how do we treat that? Punishment, chastisement, and judgement will cause pain in the recipient. And that pain will, most likely, cause the person to avoid a similar experience in the future. And to some degree, we want that, right?

I mean, I’d rather not clean up spilled milk, or spend time fixing various problems that perhaps I view as having been preventable.

At the same time, if I punish or chastise, am I also sending the message to my child that I don’t think he’s capable of seeing the result of his own mistake?

Do I really need to pile on?

What if I kept silent about my thoughts and opinions and simply allowed another person to exist in the space with the results of their own action?

(Obviously don’t try this with a kid chasing a ball into the busy street. But I think you get what I mean.)

The fixed mindset

Carol Dweck wrote about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset in her aptly-title book Mindset.

In a nutshell, a fixed mindset is one through which we view much of the world (including people) as having essential characteristics which are unlikely to change. For example, we focus on how some people are smarter, more talented, or better in some way than others.

We may tell ourselves (as I have) that we don’t think like that – we are totally open to the idea that people and things can change.

And yet is that really honest?

Yes, we may tell a 5-year-old kid that she can be anything she wants when she grows up, and clap when she says she wants to be a scientist.

Yet when she’s 15 and struggles with basic algebra, doesn’t enjoy her lab class (but still wants to be a scientist) do we judge her as not a math and science person? Do we tell her that it’s okay, some people are naturally talented in math and science, and others not, and maybe she should plan on an English major?

The fixed mindset leads us to fear mistakes because we confuse the mistakes that we make with the person that we ARE.

We say things like:

I am not good at math.

I am not a strong person.

I could never run a mile.

The problem is that sometimes we really want these things. And yet if we don’t succeed at them the first time (or the second time, or the third time) we receive that as not being good enough. As being a failure.

And nobody wants to be a failure.

A different way to look at mistakes

If we fear mistakes because we might get punished or we are afraid of being a failure, what then would happen if those two consequences were removed?

What if there was no punishment?

What if there was no failure?

Of course, there will always be mistakes. (At least I hope there will be, because a world without mistakes suggests a world without learning.) We will make them, and people around us will make them.

What if we trained our minds to see each mistake as an opportunity? A gift of learning?

What if we taught our children to do the same?

What would the world look like then?



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