The Nature of Mistakes

A statement that really got to me watching The Apprentice (US) was: that one of the über-dude judges told one of the apprentices that it was the first time in his life that someone admitted a mistake.

What is wrong with people? What is the problem with mistakes?

Example

During my summer job at Roland Berger & Partners in München (a long time ago) I made a mistake. I apologized with the people it concerned, fixed the database and all was fine. In the neighbour department another summer student-worker made a mistake, tried to hide it until it could not be hidden any longer (one day before deadline) and both our departments ended up working overtime to fix the mistake. The difference: when I left I got a party and presents—makes you think admitting a mistake is just so much easier than hiding it, right?

I grew up with sayings such as:
1: To plane wood makes wood chips—which means
2: Only one who works makes mistakes, the one who does not make mistakes, does not work
3: You grow with your tasks
 

My family is a bunch of wordsmiths who love their proverbs. These proverbs taught me a lot, most importantly that I am not afraid to make mistakes. Of course being criticized is an uncomfortable exercise and so it admitting a mistake. However, finding solutions can be an interesting exercise, and occasionally you come up with something much better than previously intended. Oh yes—and you usually learn quite a bit. Another rather fun fact—some mistake are so stupid you can all but laugh and with time they become great anecdotes in family lore. Look at Gerard Departieu—he dealt with his latest one openly and with a rather fun Asterix movie response!

So why do mistakes have such a bad reputation?

If we teach children or our students and they make mistakes, we don’t discourage them from what they were doing, we do not punish them. The opposite is the case, we use these mistakes to guide the learners. We encourage them to reflect on the insights, and challenge them to suggest strategies for improvement.

Is there a cut-off line in life when suddenly mistakes are not valuable anymore?

It seems the minute you leave a formal learning situation mistakes suddenly become something unacceptable. People try to cover them up like using make-up on a pimple. That means the cover does not quite work. The mistake leaks out anyway and usually worse as if you just would have cleaned it up right away. There is the end of my cosmetic knowledge.

So what makes mistakes so horrible, and unacceptable?

If you have an answer bring it on!

For me as a pedagogue mistakes are the ultimate heuristic incentive.

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