The Value of Mistakes

It turns out I made a mistake.  In two previous posts, I wrote about the too-often forgotten virtue of prudence. In the more recent, I pointed out that professors can’t really teach prudence in a classroom because we lack experience in the areas in which our students need to learn to be prudent. Since most of our students are preparing to be doctors, lawyers, or businessmen, not professors, we can’t impart to them the experience needed to help them become prudent in those other special fields.

After the article appeared, an eminent philosopher I greatly admire stopped by to tell me that, though he liked my article, I missed something important.  A significant way people learn prudence, he pointed out, is by learning from their mistakes.

None of us is perfect, so we will make mistakes.  And if we venture out into new areas beyond our current experiences, we are even more likely to make mistakes.  So learning from our mistakes is an important way of developing prudence. Too often people try to hide their mistakes or shy away from difficult assignments where they might make a mistake. They follow general rules, thinking they can apply them the same way to everyone in every situation and thus fail to learn prudence.

In graduate school, I took a part-time job working for an airline, checking in passengers for their flights.  We mostly gave our customers good service. But I noticed certain other airlines near our counter who often gave terrible service, generating frustrated, angry customers nearly every flight.  Why?  At these other airlines, the employees had too little training and stern managers constantly looking over their shoulders; so they were terrified of making a mistake.

If you went up to them with a special case, and they weren’t sure how to take care of it, they would simply say, “We can’t do that,” or “I’m sorry; it’s not the policy of the airline.”  This was code for “I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t want to make a mistake.”

Since making a mistake might have caused them to lose their job, and simply refusing to deal with you would not, what do you suppose they did?  They turned away customers.  Managers were “effective” at keeping mistakes from happening, and as a result, the airline lost business.

Furthermore, the moment the employees attained a certain level of proficiency, they applied for jobs at other airlines where the working conditions were less painful. As a result, that airline regularly had to lay out more money to train new, barely competent employees.

At our airline, the general attitude was, “We don’t make money unless people fly, so get them on.”  We were coached when we made mistakes, so we learned from them, and so most of us were able to handle a host of problems.

Early on, an experienced employee told me that I should not expedite lost luggage on another airline because we had no way of tracking them.  I thought I was helping the customer by getting their bags to them more quickly, so I did it anyway.  She was right; I was wrong.  I should have listened.  But I learned from that mistake, (a) never to do that again, and (b) to listen to experienced employees, especially women who have been with the company a long time.

I tell my students that if they want to learn what is really going on in a company, they should make friends with the janitorial and maintenance staff and with the secretaries who have been there the longest.  They will know what is going on in the company in a way the managers and the president rarely do.

The latter group hears news only from people trying to cover up their mistakes, not plainly admit them.  This is why many companies and most universities are run as flights of fantasy at a far remove from reality, as though the obvious problems on the ground didn’t exist.  No one wants to admit the problems, so they change the subject constantly.

Administrators and managers who can’t handle their own problems often choose instead to micro-manage everyone else’s affairs, imagining that if they can at least uncover the mistakes of those under them, they will retain their reputation for effective management.  In reality, they are sowing the seeds of future incompetence.

Social structures that do not allow people to make and learn from their mistakes always become less effective, not to mention less humane.  They fail to understand the human need to learn from mistakes, fail to help people develop the needed prudence, and produce a culture of covering up mistakes.

This is one reason “helicopter parenting” of a certain sort can be detrimental.  Young adults need to be allowed to make mistakes.  No one wants them to make mistakes that might harm them seriously, but keeping them from making any mistakes will keep them juvenile.  “Perfectionism” in students is rarely a virtue and often crippling.

We also need to remember the importance of allowing mistakes when we consider institutions with which we are involved. To their credit, the Congress for New Urbanism, a group dealing with urban design projects, now has a session at their annual conference on “mistakes I have made,” unintended consequences I did not foresee when I made my plan.  More groups should encourage such honesty.

Employees, managers, faculty members, and politicians all make mistakes. If the consequence of even a minor mistake is grave, then you can expect people will (a) work hard to cover up every mistake, (b) deny ever having made the mistake, and/or (c) speak carefully and rarely honestly so as never to make a mistake.

Such people are being “prudent” only in the modern corrupt sense.  They don’t learn from their mistakes to be wiser and more prudent; the skill they develop is covering their own butts.  The result isn’t prudent management; it’s bureaucratic intransigence and incompetence.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.