Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Mistakes, Adaptability and Success

Most of us spend a lot of time avoiding mistakes.   However, there is a long line of thinking from multiple fields that suggests too much concern about mistakes inhibits risk taking.  Along these lines, perhaps the time we spend “looking over our shoulder” avoiding mistakes might be better spent taking risks and learning from our mistakes.   Let me give you a few examples.


The Team That Makes the Most Mistakes Usually…….?

The conventional answer to this statement/question is usually “loses”, but the great basketball coach Piggy Lambert felt that the team that makes the most mistakes usually wins!  Lambert was also the coach of John Wooden and the point is that he did not want his players to be tentative and he wanted them to take reasonable risks.  There are mistakes of action and inaction and all things being equal perhaps mistakes of action are better.


Make the Most of Mistakes!

Viagra was initially tried as a drug to treat high blood pressure and chest pain.   The results were marginal.  However, many patients with high blood pressure and chest pain also have erectile dysfunction and improved erectile function was a lucky side effect of the failed blood pressure and chest pain studies.   More importantly, the fundamental discovery that led to Viagra (made by Robert Furchgott and colleagues) was also a “mistake”, or as Furchgott put it an “accident”.   Furchgott’s mistake or accident also led to a Nobel Prize.  In fact the history of medical innovation based on mistakes, accidents and serendipity is at least as impressive as the results associated with carefully planned goal directed research and development.


Mistakes and Progress

A lot of “scientifically proven” ideas are later overturned after being hyped or sold as definitive.   So, perhaps the goal in science is to have a way to make better use of our mistakes.  Here is a link to a recent article on the philosophy of science and the central role of mistakes in what might be termed progress.  The article also addresses the difficulty in communicating these ideas to the general public, and here is a key excerpt:


As the physicist John Wheeler said, “Our whole problem is to make mistakes as fast possible.”  Indeed, Karl Popper built an illuminating philosophy of science on the idea that science progresses precisely by trying as hard as it can to falsify its hypotheses.”


I would add to these ideas that the fundamental point of science is to generate questions based on the current state of knowledge and ignorance.   I read a terrific quote on this recently in the obituary of Francois Jacob, a pioneering molecular biologist who died recently.  Jacob had wanted to be a surgeon, but injuries to his hands in World War II made him redirect his interests towards research.


“What mattered more than the answers were the questions and how they were formulated.  For in the best of cases, the answer led to more questions. It was a system for concocting expectation, a machine for making the future. For me, this world of questions and the provisional, this chase after an answer that was always put off to the next day, all that was euphoric. I lived in the future.”


Adaptability is the Key

My friend and colleague Hiroshi Nose recently sent me a very insightful e-mail that included the idea that the essence of life is ambiguity and plasticity in response to environmental change.    In other words how do we adapt to the world we live in? This includes the ability to learn from our mistakes.   Hiroshi’s observation leads to a larger lesson and an observation by the historian Bernard Lewis on the way things happen in the United States.  Lewis is in his 90s and a Professor at Princeton but is originally from England where he served in World War II.  Here is his fundamental observation:


“I still remember my first two impressions of Americans, derived from my wartime comrades. One was that they were unteachable. When America entered the war, we in Britain had been at war for more than two years. We had made many mistakes, and had learned something from them. We tried to pass these lessons on to our new allies and save them from paying again the price that we had paid in blood and toil. But they wouldn’t listen—their ways were not our ways, and they would do things their way, not ours. And so they went ahead and made mistakes—some repeating ours, some new and original. What was really new and original—and this is my second lasting impression—was the speed with which they recognized these mistakes, and devised and applied the means to correct them. This was beyond anything in our experience.

In looking at the world today, and at our present predicament, I vividly recall that first impression, and anxiously await the second.”


Optimism and Mistakes

One of the reasons I think I am an optimist has to do with making the most of my many mistakes in all aspects of my life.   I think the observations by Bernard Lewis give us cause for optimism as a culture provided we keep learning, doing and fixing things.   The baseball catcher and sometimes Zen philosopher Yogi Berra once described a loss this way:


“We made too many wrong mistakes”


So make good mistakes, learn from them and make them count.  Stagnation and frustration await those who spend too much time mired in their mistakes vs. adapting because of them.


One Response to “Mistakes, Adaptability and Success”

  1. April 30th, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Sheila Ray says:

    Herein lies my biggest weakness… I hate making mistakes and I always want everything to be perfect. I struggle, daily, with this!

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