The Value of Mistakes

As some readers know by now, I’m author of an economics/business strategy textbook. Which, for most, is probably about as much fun to read as the fine print on prescription medication inserts, written in Sanskrit.

I’m reasonably fond of the book and don’t mind perusing it too much. And that’s a good thing for my sanity since I make updates to el libro every year in accordance with the publisher’s wishes.

Yes, annual updates are one of those not-so-nice business practices that textbook publishers get criticized for. But, for what it’s worth, I don’t really have a say in the matter. (Nor do I have a say in pricing. Yes, it’s expensive. Or cover design. Yes, it’s ugly. Or some other stuff you might think I would. No, I don’t especially like the paper it’s printed on.)

The Value of Mistakes
The Value of Mistakes

So I update the thing each year. Which entails reading it through at least once. And staying current on research that intersects with the book’s covered topics. And then figuring out what new stuff to incorporate into the text and how to do it and whether to rearrange discussion topics in light of new findings or just tuck stuff into the existing narrative, etc.

Which means I at least make an effort to justify the new edition each time around. Which keeps me in good standing with the publisher. Which means the publisher peeps leave me alone most of the time. Which I prefer.

Libro

But there’s another side to the annual updates that isn’t just making additions and refinements. It’s pretty much the worst possible part.

Every single time I see one I go short of breath and feel stupid and assume hordes of people have been laughing at me the last few months. That’s when I find mistakes.

To lay the land here, the book’s a few hundred pages in length of fairly dense text (in one sense or another). There are a handful of illustrations and diagrams and things, but this book is for advanced audiences and so it’s light on graphics and heavy on words. There are thousands of citations of treatises and textbooks and other books and journal articles and mainstream media and court cases and presentations and other stuff. And it’s kinda technical in nature in the sense that there’s some finance and jargon and a little math.

It’s been reviewed by economists and strategy practitioners and lawyers and students and professionals. The publisher has a team dedicated to a small collection of books including mine that does editing and layout and stuff with citations and things I probably don’t even know about. And we’re heading into the release of the fifth edition.

All of which is to say, yes, it’s a big production, but it’s got lots of eyeballs on it and lots of people with a shared interest in it and a few go-rounds under its belt and plenty of other stuff going for it.

And yet: Typos. Punctuation crap. Errors in citations like misspelling people’s names or leaving out a word in a journal title. Or even misspelling a common brand name in an example.

They’re all in there. Sneering at me like little badges of dishonor in what I’d like to think of as good work.

So, in addition to the updates – adding new bells and whistles and perspectives and case studies that are like putting a fancy new addition on the house – I also shore up mistakes. Which is like re-tiling a bathroom floor for the fourth time because you can’t seem to line up the edges. Which is no fun. And embarrassing.

But what’s it all mean?

1. Perfection Will Kill You

The book wasn’t perfect in its 4th edition, and it won’t be perfect in its 5th. It definitely wasn’t perfect the first go-round. And if I live long enough to do another update, that one won’t be all lined up either.

But I would never have slowed progress on publication or moving things forward to spend more time getting every last tiny detail just perfectly right. That’s because the book served an important economic role in my career and continues to serve a big “personal achievement” role in my life. To toil on finding perfection would mean I’d have never gotten the thing finished. It’d still be in word processor bits and pixels rather than on real pieces of tree.

Oh, and also because trying to be perfect is a loser’s game.

Things can never be completely perfect. They simply can’t be.

Which, to me, means you’ve gotta focus on getting the big stuff right while paying reasonable – but not undue – attention to the niggling details. If you’re pointed in the right general direction, then you’re getting more right than wrong. And that ain’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. As in it’s a lot better than most things, because most things never become actual stuff; instead, they stay in idea limbo or in half-finished purgatory.

Imperfect things become real. Perfect things don’t.

If you ceaselessly try to optimize and perfect at the expense of moving forward you’ll probably lose all your hair and friends and maybe even fingernails. There’s a big cost – whether financial or personal or otherwise – to trying to perfect all the time instead of doing your careful best and moving ahead with the broader purpose in mind. Ceaselessly trying to optimize without keeping an eye on the prize can make you completely miss the boat if you’re not careful.

My book’s general themes and approaches and summaries and economics are right. At least, they’re as right as this kind of stuff can be. If I’d fixated on getting all the tiny details just right on every citation, though, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be able to say that. Because I’d have risked getting big stuff wrong in order to get little stuff right. Penny rich; pound foolish. And it’s not a false choice. Time, energy and concentration are finite resources that have to be allocated. Focusing on one thing comes at the expense of other things.

So priorities really matter. If you focus on getting your priorities in line, then lots of the details with sort of just fall into place on their own. And the details that don’t fall into line by default probably won’t matter much anyway.

2. Everybody Makes Mistakes

Some of the people who have contributed in some way to the book are way smarter than I am. And way more important. And probably way less lazy.

But they (apparently) didn’t see the typos or misspellings or other crap lurking in there. Which means they made mistakes too. Which makes me feel somewhat better. Yes, the book’s mistakes are mine. And ultimately mine alone. But it’s a lot easier owning them knowing I’m not totally unique in committing errors of one sort or another.

Plus, it’s become a schadenfreude-like hobby of mine to find typos and stuff in books. Every time I find one, I’m like “Ha! They got him (or her or them), too!” (And lots of books have them. But some really don’t. There are a few economics/business writers who manage to get everything right all the time.)

You see mistakes all over the place if you start looking for them. Every time I watch football the announcers scrabble all over themselves to point out broken coverages or missed assignments or sloppy mechanics or bad communication. Mistakes everywhere!

Which means if you’ve made mistakes, financial or otherwise, you’re absolutely not alone. You’re in great company. With quarterbacks and linemen and announcers who can’t pronounce the names of quarterbacks and linemen. And me. At least, I think I’m great company. Maybe you think otherwise. But I promise I’m tons of fun at parties.

And so there’s no real need to beat yourself up over mistakes. Just learn and let it slide off you and keep your eyes on the prize – the big stuff, that is.

3. Fixating On Mistakes Misses The Point

When the announcers play the mistake-finding game it kind of bugs me. And I don’t like the schadenfreude sensation of finding typos in others’ books. Because 1) everybody makes mistakes and most people are trying their hardest and it’s not good form to criticize all the time; and 2) it presupposes there’s a single “right” way to do something when oftentimes that’s verifiably not the case; and 3) it overstates the importance of trivial mistakes, when often they really don’t matter that much.

Yeah, some things have a single answer and a single path to get there. And some things are really important. But most stuff’s complex and doesn’t really work only one way, and little slips don’t really make much of a difference for the worse lots of times.

And sometimes mistakes even lead to great stuff. I’ve gotta believe that the first time somebody did an alley-oop on the basketball court it was nothing more than a bad 3-point airball that a high-jumper happened to catch mid-flight and throw down with serious authority. Mistake. And then brilliance.

Which means (to me) that getting all worked up about mistakes and trying to find them all the time kind of sucks the goodness out of life.

Life is messy and imperfect. And there’s lots of beauty out there that isn’t mistake-free. Does the Mona Lisa have any mistakes?

It’s probably a better idea to realize that mistakes happen and then make the most of them, and maybe even flip them into something positive. Like turning an airball into a SportsCenter top 10 highlight. Or like realizing the example in my book with the misspelled brand name (that I might have otherwise mostly ignored) is very similar to a new case I’d been following and was thinking of adding. Now the case study is super-duper awesome because it combines both the previous example and the new case into one! Even better than before! Probably even more like a medication insert in Sanskrit than ever!

4. Fixing Mistakes Is Still Right

Nevertheless, if you find typos or misspellings or other little pests in your life, it’s still right to fix them with all the vicious ferocity of a rabid wolverine in a chicken coop.

If it’s cheap and easy to do better, why not? That’s how we all improve and grow and learn.

But my feeling is that effort in fixing mistakes has to scale disproportionately with the size of the issue. Big problems need 100% attention, even if that means little things get completely ignored. Because getting the paint job just right on a ship that can’t float is bad policy. Fix the holes first.

So, when I say “scale disproportionately,” I mean that if there’s a “big” issue that needs to be addressed, that issue needs a “very big” allocation of resources. That’s because the costs of mistakes tend to scale disproportionately. For example, throwing an incompletion (small mistake) on second down means it’s third down. Throwing an interception (big mistake) on second down can mean pick-six and being on the wrong end of the SportsCenter top 10 highlights.

Libre

Now with all that out of the way. And with the book’s 5th edition proofs all checked and verified. And with the misery of knowing the thing’s still got mistakes I didn’t find (but will at some point in the future). But with the belief that’s still ok… I’m gonna pour myself a brew and use an old 4th edition copy as a coaster and maybe spill a little on the cover.

‘Cuz I ain’t perfect. And I might as well embrace it. And that, to me, is the real value of mistakes: Knowing better than to worry about being perfect.

Oh, and thanks for letting me vent a little. I feel much better now.

Cheers, Luchadores! How have you embraced your imperfections? And how do you deal with mistakes?

20 Comments

Libre Your Mind