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Better by Mistake
The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong
By Alina Tugend
Riverhead Hardcover
HC, 304 pgs., US$25.95
ISBN: 1-5944-8785-5

Zero tolerance world

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 13, 2011

Better by MistakeIt is no great revelation to say that we live in a perfectionist society. Students who have yet to begin their careers to the prematurely aborted ones of politicians caught by misstep and everyone in between seems to live in fear of making a mistake. We operate under the assumption that making a mistake reveals us as frauds, weakens our position and undermines our hard work. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wrong when he proclaimed that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself; turns out making mistakes is the thing that Americans really fear.

Alina Tugend explores a fundamental paradox in Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, that we're taught practically from birth that we learn from our mistakes and yet we hate making them. Tugend argues that instead of fearing mistakes, we should instead embrace them as part of the creative process. Rather than view mistakes as weakness and failure, Tugend suggests they are instead an opportunity to examine the process and the assumptions we bring into it.

Tugend opens her effort by exploring the ostensibly simple difference between mistakes and errors and why we react to them the way we do. Not surprisingly, most of us become defensive when confronted by a mistake and often tend to shift the blame away from ourselves. Relatively few of us actually carefully examine the mistake to see why it happened and what lessons we can draw from them. Thomas Edison, after all, once remarked that he learned of thousands of materials which didn't make for effective filaments in light bulbs in his quest for the one that did. Edison was likely quite familiar with the title of one of Tugend's chapters, "Fail often, fast, and cheap."

Better by Mistake is a sprawling effort which looks at everything from the business world and how resistant its stars are to admitting mistakes to how different cultures deal with them. As would be expected, different people – whether individually or as a culture – handle mistakes in different ways. Of particular interest is Tugend's exploration of apologies – something we are loath to do and yet is such a powerful gesture when done correctly and sincerely.

Perhaps of most interest to many will be Tugend's examination of the medical and aviation fields. Although each tends to employ the best and brightest, mistakes are still common and unfortunately lives are lost as a result. Tugend details how each continue to refine their procedures, often because a mistake was made and revealed a gap. And it isn't just increased technology being brought to the fight as Tugend reports that the medical field imported the simple checklist from aviation and managed to cut the number of mistakes made during surgery. Obvious in retrospect, perhaps, but cultures staffed by the highly intelligent are often as blind to common sense as the average person.

Although Better by Mistake is generally a solid effort, but Tugend occasionally does prompt some head scratching, most notably with a chapter exploring the dicey topic of gender differences. Perhaps knowing the minefield that she's about to enter, Tugend at once seems to want to minimize any differences between men and women and yet acknowledge at the very same time that there are, and some very big ones that can't be explained away by how male and female babies are raised. Although the angle of gender differences is worth exploring, in Tugend's hands it just seemed out of place in Better by Mistake.

That criticism aside, Better by Mistake is still a worthy read. Although others have covered medical error or the art of apologies in far greater detail, Tugend's work serves capably as an introduction to the study of mistakes. And although no single book is likely to change our perception of what it means to make a mistake, the image of the politician surrounded by family at a press conference admitted to "errors" won't disappear any time soon, perhaps the reader can take away that missteps are as guaranteed as breathing and rarely as bad as we think. It is, after all, why pencils have erasers. ESR

Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.

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