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

By Elaine Lies
/ Source: Reuters

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO, May 26 (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.

"When we feel open to learning from errors, hey I'm growing, it's a process, there's a reason to make a mistake and learn from it, we're much more open to figuring out."

She said she was particularly struck by Japanese attitudes towards mistakes, especially in schools, where students at the end of the day are encouraged to look at what worked and didn't work, and then see how that could be corrected -- thinking of things as a process rather than seeing results alone.

Gradually, her thinking changed until she now sees mistakes as part of the risks that can lead to discovery -- although it's not the mistakes that are good, but what you learn from them.

"If we're being innovative, if we're trying different things, if we're experimenting and trying to be creative, we're more likely to make mistakes," she said.

"So the opportunity is letting ourselves make mistakes, not making the mistake necessarily."

Tugend says she herself still doesn't embrace mistakes with joy, but she's learned how to put them into better perspective -- a technique more needed now than ever, with errors of any kind more likely to linger due to the Internet and social media.

"The old saying was that if you had an error in a newspaper, the next day it was at the bottom of a birdcage. Now it isn't at the bottom of a birdcage, it's somewhere out there in cyberspace," she said.

"I think that does make it harder for people. It creates more fear."