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The Mistake Process

It is a child’s fallacy to believe that adults know everything, or that they don’t make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of the process of learning, both for the individuals who discovered facts and developed ideas in the first place, and for the many people who learn about the facts and ideas already developed by others. The point is to separate the true facts and useful ideas from the mistakes.

It is easy to get the impression that success means never making a mistake. And this is especially harmful when success is so emphasised in our culture. This can actually be discouraging.

Students who only learnt about the successes of famous scientists and entrepreneurs end up less motivated than those who learnt about the long process of discovery. There were many stops and starts when a new discovery or idea developed. Often these discoveries are a lifetime’s work. Students who think it all occurred on the first attempt often give up, because their first attempt didn’t work.

Part of the misunderstanding is what we consider a failure or mistake. If we perform a scientific experiment and show that something does not work, that is not a failure. If something works, we learn something. If something does not work, we also learn something. Both attempts are at least a partial success. Only if the results are inconclusive (what happened? Did it work or not?) is it a waste.

Science experiments are different to something like business decisions. If we make a mistake in investments we lose a lot of money. If we make a so-called mistake in a computer program or physics experiment we usually just see that as part of the learning process (hopefully we didn’t blow anything up!). This is what a smarter person might call experience.

There has been a trend towards positive thinking, but this is often quite naive. It is too simple to think that a positive attitude will make everything work first time. But it is reasonable to say that there will be an answer if we keep going, or even that there can be good results if we pursue a different goal. Positive thinking should say there are good possibilities, amid all the other sidetracks and other possibilities. It does not mean that positive thinking turns a bad idea into a good one.

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We can afford to make mistakes when learning, when experimenting (in safe conditions), when proposing ideas. We cannot afford to make mistakes on exams, in business, or when making life decisions. We need to learn as much as possible before we make these decisions.

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