Mistakes

If you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways.

-Confucius

 

I never make the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of mistakes. So, I keep making new ones. Fortunately, philosophy is rather helpful in minimizing the impact of mistakes and learning that crucial aspect of wisdom: not committing the same error over and over.

One key aspect to avoiding the repetition of errors is skill in critical thinking. While critical thinking has become something of a buzz-word bloated fad, the core of it remains as important as ever. The core is, of course, the methods of rationally deciding whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected as false or if judgment regarding that claim should be suspended. Learning the basic mechanisms of critical thinking (which include argument assessment, fallacy recognition, credibility evaluation, and causal reasoning) is relatively easy—reading through the readily available quality texts on such matters will provide the basic tools. But, as with carpentry or plumbing, merely having a well-stocked tool kit is not enough. A person must also have the knowledge of when to use a tool and the skill with which to use it properly. Gaining knowledge and skill is usually difficult and, at the very least, takes time and practice. This is why people who merely grind through a class on critical thinking or flip through a book on fallacies do not suddenly become good at thinking. After all, no one would expect a person to become a skilled carpenter merely by reading a DIY book or watching a few hours of videos on YouTube.

Another key factor in avoiding the repetition of mistakes is the ability to admit that one has made a mistake. There are many “pragmatic” reasons to avoid admitting mistakes. Public admission to a mistake can result in liability, criticism, damage to one’s reputation and other such harms. While we have sayings that promise praise for those who admit error, the usual practice is to punish such admissions—and people are often quick to learn from such punishments. While admitting the error only to yourself will avoid the public consequences, people are often reluctant to do this. After all, such an admission can damage a person’s pride and self-image. Denying error and blaming others is usually easier on the ego.

The obvious problem with refusing to admit to errors is that this will tend to keep a person from learning from her mistakes. If a person recognizes an error, she can try to figure out why she made that mistake and consider ways to avoid making the same sort of error in the future. While new errors are inevitable, repeating the same errors over and over due to a willful ignorance is either stupidity or madness. There is also the ethical aspect of the matter—being accountable for one’s actions is a key part of being a moral agent. Saying “mistakes were made” is a denial of agency—to cast oneself as an object swept along by the river of fare rather than an agent rowing upon the river of life.

In many cases, a person cannot avoid the consequences of his mistakes. Those that strike, perhaps literally, like a pile of bricks, are difficult to ignore. Feeling the impact of these errors, a person might be forced to learn—or be brought to ruin. The classic example is the hot stove—a person learns from one touch because the lesson is so clear and painful. However, more complicated matters, such as a failed relationship, allow a person room to deny his errors.

If the negative consequences of his mistakes fall entirely on others and he is never called to task for these mistakes, a person can keep on making the same mistakes over and over. After all, he does not even get the teaching sting of pain trying to drive the lesson home. One good example of this is the political pundit—pundits can be endlessly wrong and still keep on expressing their “expert” opinions in the media. Another good example of this is in politics. Some of the people who brought us the Iraq war are part of Jeb Bush’s presidential team. Jeb, infamously, recently said that he would have gone to war in Iraq even knowing what he knows now. While he endeavored to awkwardly walk that back, it might be suspected that his initial answer was the honest one. Political parties can also embrace “solutions” that have never worked and relentless apply them whenever they get into power—other people suffer the consequences while the politicians generally do not directly reap consequences from bad policies. They do, however, routinely get in trouble for mistakes in their personal lives (such as affairs) that have no real consequences outside of this private sphere.

While admitting to an error is an important first step, it is not the end of the process. After all, merely admitting I made a mistake will not do much to help me avoid that mistake in the future. What is needed is an honest examination of the mistake—why and how it occurred. This needs to be followed by an honest consideration of what can be changed to avoid that mistake in the future. For example, a person might realize that his relationships ended badly because he made the mistake of rushing into a relationship too quickly—getting seriously involved without actually developing a real friendship.

To steal from Aristotle, merely knowing the cause of the error and how to avoid it in the future is not enough. A person must have the will and ability to act on that knowledge and this requires the development of character. Fortunately, Aristotle presented a clear guide to developing such character in his Nicomachean Ethics. Put rather simply, a person must do what it is she wishes to be and stick with this until it becomes a matter of habit (and thus character). That is, a person must, as Aristotle argued, become a philosopher. Or be ruled by another who can compel correct behavior, such as the state.

 

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14 Comments.

  1. s. wallerstein

    Mike,

    You say that you never make the same mistake twice. Never?

    That affirmation seems to imply that you always recognize when you have made a mistake and hence, can avoid making it again. Do you always recognize when you have made a mistake?

    If you do, you are a very exceptional human being and I congratulate you.

    However, most of us, even if we try to never make the same mistake twice, repeat our mistakes, until we touch the proverbial hot stove which you mention above.

    Most of us have certain illusions which it takes a hot stove to wake us up from and certain dogmatic beliefs which it takes another hot stove to cure us of.

    Couldn’t it be a mistake to affirm that you never make the same mistake twice?

  2. I’m curious about how you are defining mistakes. I believe that I often make the same mistake many times. Some of the things I do are quite difficult and require practice to get right, things like music and athletics. I can’t even count how many times I swung at a high fastball that I knew I couldn’t hit or took a breath in the wrong spot which forced me to interrupt a legato line.

  3. Be quick to admit error; forgive the errors of others; do not expect others to forgive you for your errors.

    .mek

  4. A problem with tuning ones faculties for critical and logical thinking, is that one can forget that only a minority of people think logically and critically, and then be surprised and confused at the thinking of others.

    It’s not that Jeb Bush won’t admit to a mistake, it’s that people like Jeb do not believe they can make a mistake. Jeb doesn’t believe his brother George made a mistake, because George is his brother, and since he is his brother, this intrinsic merit means it was impossible for him to be mistaken. And there are so many other factors to confirm Jeb’s belief in his personal infallibility. Take the fact he and his brother are rich and successful. This must mean they are more intelligent than poorer people, like university professors, because if they weren’t so intelligent they would be poor.

    But are university professors any better than Jeb Bush. It depends. Some university professors get a shot at being professor, for the same reason Jeb gets a shot at politics and becoming president. And many people assume there is a holy purity in scientific research where this could not happen, but they would be mistaken. And when they make a GW Bush scale mistake, like losing their entire research budget through idiotic incompetence, they do not take responsibility, instead they throw their junior researchers under the bus, the other Jebs defend them; because of their intrinsic goodness, and the fact that this goodness means they cannot make a mistake, and that there is a purity in their deviousness and lying, because it ultimately saves their fat arse from the flames, the ends justify the means.

  5. s.wallerstein,

    I always make different mistakes-but as there are an infinite number of possible mistakes, I still make many mistakes.

    Interesting epistemic question-one might be making mistakes that one does not recognize as a mistake. This might be because the person wrongly thinks it is not a mistake or because the mistake is not yet revealed. Or some other options.

    It is certainly a mistake to claim that I never make the same mistake twice. But I never make that mistake twice. Except when I do.

  6. Gene,

    One vacuous way to not commit the same mistake twice is to note that the mistake will never be identical-at the very least, time will be different.

    Mainly, saying I never make the same mistake twice was hyperbole to make a bumper sticker style saying. The main point is that there are an infinite number of possible mistakes, etc.

  7. JMRC,

    True-there are terrible people everywhere. Not just politics.

  8. s. wallerstein

    No situation ever occurs twice in exactly the same way, so on a certain level it is impossible to make exactly the same mistake twice, except in mathematics or similar subjects (for example, 2 + 2 = 5 can be made again and again in exactly the same way).

    On that level, the alcoholic who again and again drinks excessively, crashes their car and ends up in jail never makes the same mistake twice since they never drink the same bottle of liquor nor crash the car in exactly the same way.

    However, generally we speak of making the same mistake when in similar (but not exactly the same) situations we repeat the same error. For example, I repeatedly fall in love with women who reject me and reject women who seek me out: obviously, the women are different and thus, the situations are different, but there is a pattern of erroneous behavior (we suppose that I seek love or sex, not rejection) and thus, it is generally said that I make the same mistake twice or more.

  9. S.wallerstein,

    All true.

    I was stealing from Heraclitus-his bit about being unable to step into the same river twice.

    That said, it could be interesting to consider the kinds of mistakes one makes and to see if a person makes very similar mistakes or learns something. For example, a person might make relationship mistakes, but the mistakes might be significantly different despite falling under a general category.

  10. s. wallerstein

    Mike,

    In my experience, sexual orientation, that is, the kind of woman I am attracted to, is difficult or impossible to change.

    What I have learned is to defend myself a bit better and to avoid making such a fool of myself by chasing after women who not only reject me, but also make rejecting me into a fun game (for them) whose rules they make up and change as the game goes on and which I always lose.

    Learning that took being burned by several hot stoves, to use your metaphor above, and psychotherapy in my late 40’s.

    Before the final catastrophic 3rd degree hot stove burn, which occurred in my early 40’s, I repeatedly made the same relationalship mistake, starting in my late teens, and so all in all, one can say that it took me 30 years to learn how to deal with the situation.

  11. s.wallerstein,

    But, you did learn. Some people never do.

  12. s. wallerstein

    A fool in love at age 18 is romantic and they write songs about them, but a fool in love at age 50 is a fool and no one respects them. That people respect me matters to me: that makes a big difference.

  13. Love makes us all fools, but sometimes glorious fools.

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