All mistakes are not the same

To err is human. We all make mistakes. We cannot get it right all the time. The way we learn and innovate successfully is by making mistakes. Life would be boring if we did not make mistakes. However, all mistakes are not the same.
  1. Final mistakes: A mistake is final in a "sudden death" playoff or elimination round of any tournament. We can make fatal mistakes once if it takes out our own life. It's a final mistake if we kill the patient, passengers or victim we murder while living to tell the tale. Final mistakes make for high stakes risk taking that rivets audiences to their TV screens and news updates of their favorite sports teams.
  2. Costly mistakes: A mistake is costly when there's continuity with misfortune. We can keep playing, working, participating or contributing. The mistake may have provided a setback could let a rival advance in the competition. It's easy to keep score and know where things stand. Everyone hopes the mistake won't happen again. Mistakes are bad and discouraged under this pressure to perform superbly. The people who make the same mistake repeatedly are believed to be a mistake and are expected to be ashamed of themselves. Correcting mistakes takes time away from making progress, improving processes, reducing costs, or getting results. Costly mistakes call for embarrassing damage control, apologies or recompense.
  3. Useful mistakes: A mistake is useful when it identifies a problem. It's helpful to make a mistake when debugging, refining, troubleshooting and error trapping. We don't know what's wrong, being incorrectly assumed, getting overlooked or taken for granted until a useful mistake gets made. Processes of innovation, design, experimentation and improvisation all require useful mistakes to be made routinely. It's nearly impossible to keep score or know where the project stands. The problems are ill-defined and getting revised in the process of solving them.
  4. Perfect mistakes: A mistake is perfect when we end up in a better place. We make a wrong turn and discover something new. We add the wrong ingredient and get a better result. We forget what we we're supposed to bring and improvise a superior outcome. Something appears to suppress our conscious reasoning and guide us to an alternative we could not have planned on, done deliberately or favored when given the choice.

While these four categories appear as objective criteria, their impact is much more subjective and psychological.

When we are afraid of making a mistake, no mistake is ever considered to be useful or perfect. Performance anxiety dominates our experience. Our minds are closed and prone to fixate on past practices. We are too apprehensive to experiment, wing it or let go of the last mistake. We relate to mistakes this way when we are in positions with high visibility, lots of power, rivals poised to tarnish our reputation and enormous responsibilities for others. We also put this spin on mistakes when we're feeling victimized, powerless and haunted by bad luck.

When we value the benefits of making mistakes, we downplay the costly ones. We believe "you win some and you lose some" and it pays to chill out. Our minds are freewheeling and open to unforeseen alternatives. We don't want to rely on past practices when a better way could be discovered by messing around. We relate to mistakes this way when we are free agents, creative professionals, part-timers and inventors. We also put this spin on mistakes when we're avoiding responsibility, dismissing guilt trips and scoffing at control freaks.

Thus it's not very effective to adopt a particular approach to mistakes. Every kind of mistake is realistic and worthy of consideration. Some are to be avoided and others to be sought after. In fact it's even possible to make a mistake about making mistakes by avoiding the ones to seek out and pursuing the ones to be avoided. Then it's a question of learning from that mistake or continuing to make it.


  1. You mean, "Not all mistakes are the same".

  2. I meant:
    all mistakes are dissimilar from a uniform characterization
    all mistakes belong in subsets of the set called "mistakes"
    all mistakes differ among themselves more than they share in common
    all mistakes demonstrate characteristics that are not identical

    If I did not convey what I meant, that's my mistake!

  3. Kia ora e Tom!

    Then there are:

    5 Unnoticed mistakes: These are mistakes that are made and can't be traced even when there is suspicion that a mistake may have caused the disaster or the fortuitous success or whatever.

    Mistakes that are unnoticed are not necessarily unimportant. It's just that they never proffer a response so that we can learn anything from them. That's not to say that they never result in a response. When they do, the result is so far removed along the event pathway that it has become impossible (or at least extremely difficult) to trace that the mistake was made.

    If there is a 'useless' category for mistakes, number 5 would certainly fit that, for though they may prove fatal or successful (to whoever) they are not what we could rightly say are reproducible. Nobody learns a damn thing from them.

    Catchy later
    from Middle-earth

  4. Kia ora e Ken!
    Thanks for the fifth category. It's a great one. "Unnoticed mistakes" also add a dimension to all this. Sometimes it's difficult to catch, detect or even suspect the mistake in the first place, regardless of the kind of mistake.

    Enjoy today!