On finding and being ok with mistakes

Category : Meta-Thinking, Rationality, Reflections · by Sep 20th, 2015

Elon Musk caught my attention when he said something to the effect of “successful company fix mistakes fast, while unsuccessful ones denies that the mistake exists in the first place”. There’s an assumption that “you will make mistakes, no matter how hard you work” that is rather refreshing.

Over break I made a pretty big mistake of being enamored with an unfeasible research plan. I had an idea that my instinct told me was going to work, and assumed that it is indeed going to work for at least a month. To make matters worse, over the month many chances to question the idea has came up, but I avoided taking the difficult route each of the time because 1.) I didn’t want to face the possibility of losing the idea and 2) I assumed that things are probably going ok and everything will magically solve itself.

The reason I caught up to the mistake early was because I forced myself to work on the plan for 2 hours a day. If I didn’t do that, it’s conceivable that I would have caught the mistake close to the due date of my proposal.

When I think back to my mistake, I saw a few surprising lessons. Firstly, up until the point I started procrastinating thinking about the idea,  I had done absolutely nothing wrong. It’s impossible to prevent a problematic idea from stealing your attention, so the only way to fix the problem would be thinking more or trying. On the other hand, since at the time we did not know a problem exists, the advice “fix mistakes fast” isn’t applicable here. Rather, we should try to confirm untested assumptions before depending on them. This often boils down to “testing assumptions fast”, since over time we rely on our assumptions more. Often, during this testing, we discover better answers.

My procrastination taught me that I should be extremely suspicious of untested assumptions with high stakes, and be especially alert to assumptions that my minds attempts to persuade me not to suspect.

Isn’t that natural, after all? We all want to be right, but given the complexity of the world, we are bound to make many wrong predictions.

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