Don't just learn from mistakes -- embrace them, book says

Thu May 26, 2011 5:04am EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Alina Tugend made a mistake at work. Since she is a reporter, this meant issuing a public correction of an article.

Afterwards, frustrated, she thought about the contrast between being taught from childhood about learning from mistakes, and the fact that, even so, most people still hate making them.

"It certainly wasn't the first, nor will it be the last of the mistakes I've made. And as I was sitting there thinking about it, and it was fairly minor and nothing substantive, I was thinking, why do I feel so bad about this?" Tugend, a veteran New York Times reporter, said.

"I thought why do we have so many quotes and mottos about how mistakes are how we learn, every mistake is a new experience... And yet, most of us hate making mistakes, and most of us dread owning up to them."

Her investigation into mistake avoidance, how people learn it and how to unlearn it, resulted in the book "Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong."

Tugend examined mistakes in general, mistakes across cultures, mistakes within companies, and how businesses where mistakes could be fatal, such as the airline industry and hospitals, make sure they reduce and avoid errors. She also looked at Wall Street and how mistakes there contributed to the financial crisis.

Other sections focus on systemic or repetitive mistakes, where the mistakes may be a clue to a larger, underlying issue -- a woman who forgot a tennis date with the same people several times, for example, perhaps not wanting to play tennis at all.

"Research has shown that when we feel bad about ourselves and feel we can't change, we tend not to go back and look at our errors and learn from them. We try to avoid them and make ourselves feel better by putting down other people, or being defensive," she said.   Continued...