On Mistakes

Published on November 16, 2015 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

[…] two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right.

—Stephen R. Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1990).

Even though mistakes are important to learn, we try to avoid making mistakes. Early on we get taught to avoid making mistakes. Mistakes get readily pointed out, punished eventually.

But what are mistakes?

When is something we say or do a mistake?

Far less frequently than our parlance suggests do we actually deal with mistakes. Here’s why.

A mistake seems to be “an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong” (Google definition lacking attribution) or “an erroneous belief that certain facts are true” (Wikipedia).

If we stay at this level, everything seems clear. But if we ask whether a person would have known an answer (action, judgment, belief, anything), the picture seems to change.

If a person knows an answer but doesn’t give it, is the person making a mistake? Or is he acting out of intent?

If a person doesn’t know an answer and doesn’t give it, is the person making a mistake? Or is he acting out of ignorance?

If there’s no single answer, or if it’s not clear which answer is indeed correct, is a person that gives an answer making a mistake? Or is he acting out of ignorance, too?

Are there mistakes?

Wrong Answers Objective Question Subjective Question
Correct Answer Known Intention n/a
Correct Answer Unknown Ignorance Preference?

What are mistakes then? Like, when we don’t recall a particular fact? When we’ve given the wrong solution in an exam? When we got that departure time wrong?

Since we don’t seem to have the intent to blank, fail the exam, or miss the bus, and since we aren’t ignorant either, having studied the subject and checked out the plan, what then?

I, playing here, do ad hoc see two possibilities. Either there’s another variable—“unconscious”?—, or we should be talking “slips” or “glitches” or some sort of temporary failure: but not mistakes.

We cannot make mistakes, and we don’t make mistakes. If we do—can at all—know the answer to whatever problem is presented to us, and we don’t give it, we do so intentionally. Otherwise we just don’t know. And else—we might well be human.

But—lazy or wily writing?—, is the issue really something else here? Is it just that we need to be more aware of what mistakes really are? That they don’t really have much meaning, for they are, as outlined, so dependent on intent? Or what do we want to conclude?

I love questions like this one. (And I promise to write with more punch again, just as I work on eradicating blind spots in my philosophical vision.)

(This is one of five “lost” articles that I only published in 2021.)

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!