Friday, May 02, 2008

In Praise of Mistakes

(News-Herald, May 1) I write today in praise of mistakes.

Being wrong has great value in this world.

First of all, negative examples can be powerful. The thing about people who do things right and do them well is that they make so much of it seem natural and easy. When you watch a perfect performance by an athlete or musician, you can’t imagine that it could have been done any other way. It’s hard to learn from perfection.

But while it often seems as if there’s only one way to be great, there are a thousand ways to mess things up. Each one of them is instructive. The managers of Oil City and Franklin hospitals undoubtedly did a thousand things correctly over the decades, and those decisions are lost to posterity. But the botched merger of the two facilities is a management manual of mangled – well, I’ve run out of M words, but you get the idea. Even Herb Baum claims to have learned from his gross mishandling of Quaker State’s business in Oil City.

Of course, these lessons are not always worth the cost of the actual mistake. Like many divorced men, I can say that I learned a great deal from my marital meltdown. I also learned a lot from the time I lay down on a bunch of bees and the time I picked up a white hot piece of charcoal. Yet as instructional as all these life experiences have been, I can’t say that I would recommend any of them to someone else.

There is another value in making mistakes. Oddly enough, Albert Einstein is a fine example of this brand of useful mistakenness.

Among his other many achievements, Einstein laid the groundwork for quantum physics (which we are not going to explore today, thank you very much). But Einstein didn’t like quantum physics, and could never shake the feeling that it was just wrong.

And so, having laid the foundation, he proceeded to toss bricks at the young scientists who tried to build the house. On numerous occasions Einstein confronted the young turks of physics with challenge after challenge—“If quantum theory is right, then how do you explain X?” Now, Einstein was always a scientist about this. The challenges reportedly never contained a hint of “You stupid jerk kids.”

But the challenges forced the young pioneers of quantum theory to refine their ideas, to correct their mistakes, and otherwise try to find answers for the smartest man in the world. In the end, with his spirited dissent, Einstein drove the development of quantum theory forward, even though every step forward suggested that he was wrong.

At various times, various people have dreamt of the beautiful, efficient glory of having everyone On The Same Page. If we just had everyone in agreement, we could rip forward with all resources focused with laser-like intensity on a clear, consistent goal.

It’s a beautiful and inspiring picture, but it only works as long as whoever is picking the page picks the right page 100% of the time. And the only thing that is 100% correct is the statement, “Nobody is right 100% of the time.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Grand Imperial Poohbah in charge of Frakistan’s Five Year Plan or the uber-bossy head of a roadside ice cream stand—if your plan is that you will never listen to anyone because you will always be right and they will always be wrong, you’re headed for trouble.

One of the things that has always made America great is the Right to Make Mistakes. Sometimes the only path to the bright sunny meadow is through the dark forest. Sometimes messing up is the only way to learn what we need to know to get things right. Nobody should want to be mistaken, but I’ve seen plenty of folks who were so afraid of making a mistake that they didn’t make anything at all. A caterpillar is not nature’s mistake in the attempt to create a butterfly; it’s just a necessary step on the way.

We need people who are mistaken, just as we all the need the flexibility to let go of our own cherished mistakes. When it comes to local development, we’re better off having many people try many different things. Some of them may well bomb, but that’s better than an endlessly paralyzed search for the One Right Thing to do.

1 comment:

Mrs.C said...

Thanks Mr. Greene, a very helpful read given my current state. I had to leave my job recently. Ever taking that job in the first place is in my top 5 of BIGGEST mistakes, right up there with thinking leg-warmers were cool and getting my ears pierced 4 times LOL!

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