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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book review: "Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong"


By Terri Schlichenmeyer
“Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” by Alina Tugend
c.2011, Riverhead Books $25.95 / $32.50 Canada 304 pages

Ooops.

You made a little mistake at work.

Okay, it wasn’t so little. It was gargantuan.

Clients bailed, money was lost, everyone’s mad at you. It was so bad, so colossal an error that you’re sure you’re going to lose your job over this. Which means you’ll lose your house, you’ll lose your family, you’ll lose your dog and your truck, and your life will basically sound like a bad Country-Western song.

That kind of thinking is called hindsight bias, and you can just stop it. Instead, read “Better By Mistake” by Alina Tugend. That “little” error might be a huge opportunity.

So you made a mistake.

Welcome to the club, says Alina Tugend. The truth is that, from the time you wake up until you go to sleep, there are so many choices to make that the chance for error – no matter how small or large – is huge. Therefore, just face it: you’re going to make mistakes.

But we, as a society, don’t make much of a distinction between “good” mistakes and “bad” mistakes. The bigger the boo-boo, the higher the fear of punishment, which is something our parents and teachers might have inadvertently instilled in us, our personalities intensify, and our workplaces perpetuate.

What helps, says Tugend, is to look back and understand where you went wrong and why the mistake happened. Did the aftermath make up for the initial panic? Can it be fixed? Did you learn something from it?

If you learned to avoid everything for fear of making a mistake, Tugend says that’s normal. But fear not: millions of neurons in your brain evaluated the weight of that error, which will cause you to slow down next time. Making a mistake, therefore, automatically changes your behavior. The other good news is that our ability to monitor errors increases as we grow and age.

But what can be done about the mess you made? Tugend says that a real apology – one that’s sincere, acknowledges the offense, admits regret and responsibility, and is offered immediately – goes a long way to patch things up. Saying “I’m sorry” is complex and tricky, but that’s often all the offended person really wants.

So you say you ain’t no saint. Neither were the saints, says author Alina Tugend in this lively, interesting (albeit occasionally off-track) little book.

Through old test results, experiments, expert opinions, and case studies, Tugend explains how mistakes can be both mortifying and fortuitous at the same time. She studies mistakes that can – literally – mean life or death. She looks at how reactions to a mistake can color the perpetrator’s ability to take risks in the future, which is important and helpful information for all managers. When something goes wrong at work, do you question an error or quash an employee?

“Better by Mistake” won’t prevent you from goofy gaffes or spectacular snafus, but it will make it easier to learn from your lapses and put things into perspective. If you need that reminding, it would be a slip-up to slip past this book.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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