Today, I spoke to Alina Tugend, who is the author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. Alina has been a journalist for more than twenty-five years and writes the biweekly consumer column “Shortcuts” for the New York Times business section. In this interview, Alina explains her research findings behind her new book, why making mistakes will help your career, and more.
What inspired you to write Better by Mistake?
Actually I was inspired to write about mistakes after I wrote one of my New York Times columns and there was a minor mistake in it. It wasn’t the first time, but it really bothered me and after running a public correction I started thinking about why when we’re young we’re taught we learn from mistakes but as we get older, we usually see mistakes as something to be avoided and hidden. So I wrote a column about that, citing social science research about how we learn young to accept or avoid mistakes. It really resonated with readers, and out of that column – eventually – I wrote the book.
Throughout your research, what were your main conclusions and findings?
While most of us give lip service to the platitudes that we all learn from mistakes and quote great inventors and scientists to that effect, the message – both overt and covert – that we get in our society is that mistakes are bad. This is because we tend to focus solely on results and not on the process. In our culture we say we admire people who try hard, but really we don’t put a lot of value on effort and process. For example, in school, the goal is far too often to simply get the right answer, rather than understanding how one got there, and valuing the mistakes made in the process of getting there. Focusing only on the right answers means we learn things much more superficially than if we understood the underlying concepts.
I also discovered this is not universally true. In Japan, for example, in early education, teachers and students are much more more open to the role mistakes serve in helping us understand. Mistakes are not something to be embarrassed about but to be used as a learning tool.
I also learned that most errors -whether in business, medicine or aviation, all of which I wrote about in my book – are caused not by one bad apple but by systemic problems. Usually there are many latent errors that led up to the active error. Yet too often we simply want to find someone to blame and resolve the superficial problem quickly, and therefore we don’t do the hard work needed to dig down and really find out what went wrong and why. So the error is much more likely to happen again.
If people don’t make mistakes, can they still be successful or not?
People can’t help but make mistakes. We’re human. No one can be perfect. I think rather the question should be, if people aren’t open to learning from their mistakes – and open to the necessary feedback, even if negative – can they be successful? And I think that’s very difficult. While many successful people are perfectionists, there is a problem with so valuing the concept of being perfect that you are terrified of any hint that you might be wrong or less than perfect. Research has shown us that people who are too invested in their perfectionism are often less creative and less willing to take the necessary risks to be successful than non-perfectionists. Bill Gates once said, “How a company deals with its mistakes suggests how well it will bring out the best ideas and talents in its people.”
Can you force yourself to make a mistake and learn from it or is it better to make mistakes naturally?
I think we all make enough “natural” mistakes in life to learn from them! However, There is an idea called deliberate mistakes that some experts advocate – that is trying something that conventional wisdom says won’t work. For example, advertising pioneer David Ogilvy, who,when he tested his ideas, deliberately included ads that he thought would not work in order to test and improve his rules on evaluating advertising. Now of course, this can only be done within reason – a company can’t drill for oil where it’s likely to be dry. That would just be too expensive.
From your life experiences, can you talk about how mistakes have helped shape your career?
Well, I wrote a book about them! That shaped my life. I think it’s not necessarily the mistakes themselves that shape people’s lives – thought they obviously can in terms of financial mishaps or a bad marriage for example. But in many cases I think it’s our attitude and actions surrounding mistakes that affect our lives. For example, some people are so afraid of being or doing wrong that they constantly take the safe road or are paralyzed when faced with a challenge. I don’t think that is my issue. But I think I was affected by the aftermath of mistakes – I would beat myself up after every mistake, big or small. Intellectually I knew no one is perfect, but somehow in my gut I felt terrible for ever failing. I still don’t love making mistakes – I don’t think many people do – but I have learned to forgive myself more. That allows me to be more open to criticism and more able to differentiate valid from invalid criticism. And that’s huge.
Alina Tugend is the author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. She has been a journalist for more than twenty-five years. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of California Berkeley and a master of studies in law at Yale Law School. She has written about education, environmentalism, and consumer culture for numerous publications, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, American Journalism Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Child, and Parents. Since 2005, she has written the biweekly consumer column “Shortcuts” for the New York Times business section.