Just File Your Mistakes

There is a popular notion that advises that we can’t succeed without first failing. The idea is that we fail forward to success. There are other variations such as we learn best from our mistakes and this sweeping generalization from Herman Melville, “Failure is the true test of greatness.”

Since notions like “failure is a prerequisite to success” or “mistakes are prelude to positive outcomes” strike me as absurd, I think I will turn to Buddha for guidance. “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it — even if I have said it — unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” If you are reluctant to take this contrary thinking trip with me, let me remind you of Bertrand Russell’s take on contrary thinking. “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Or perhaps this from J K Galbraith, “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

Sure, I’ve made my share of mistakes and there have been a few times when “failure” is a fair characterization of an unwanted outcome. That likely doesn’t distinguish me from you or anyone else. But that is not the question here. The question is whether the mistakes and occasional failure were necessary pre-conditions to my subsequent success.

It may help to make what I think is an important clarification. A mistake is an action or set of actions that get an outcome different than expected. In turn, a failure is nothing more than a mistake that has unwanted consequences that persist. It’s a continuum from trying something that doesn’t work to trying something that results in a persistent mess. Where along the way you choose to designate the outcome as failure is your call. The point is that mistakes are nothing special or unusual; nor is occasional failure. The only real difference is that failure usually designates the point on the continuum where you stop trying.

Here is the conclusion I draw. Mistakes are likely inevitable, but I have no reason to think they are either necessary or useful. Better would be to get it right the first time, every time. For me, this is obvious. My experience teaches me that the mistakes I have made have little value other than to be put into the folder where I file mistakes under “things to avoid in the future.” In this case, I do subscribe to the old wisdom that teaches, “If I keep doing things like I’ve always done them, what I’ll get is what I’ve already got: mistakes.” Thus, mistakes are to be remembered only as a reminder not to repeat them.