Notes On Alina Tugend’s Better By Mistake

Alina Tugend. “Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” (2011).

About 285 pages. 8 chapters with an introduction and conclusion. There are 27 pages of notes and a 13 page bibliography.

This book was appealing to me because of the cover page and my quick scan of the table of contents. Mistakes are made every day by people from all walks of life. The applicability of this book to historical studies was also appealing. Historians are not immune to making mistakes. What mistakes have been made? What are the ways that we can go about addressing these? These are questions that I’m seeking the answers to.

The introduction contained a brief summary of why Tugend wrote the book and what the reader can expect to find within. The book is packed full of interesting stories about studies which have been done related to accidents and mistakes. I think it provides a solid introduction into the world of mistake-making and how we can handle mistakes.

I’m glad I read the book. It draws upon numerous studies that I found to be thought-provoking. One thing that I’m going to be putting into practice is getting better and better at making lists. Lists apparently are a good way to avoid making mistakes. I’ve kind of known this for awhile but after reading this book I want to see just how beneficial the lists I create can get.


Chapter 1

Pages 9-40

Chapter 1 began with a discussion about the differing definitions attributed to the word “mistake”. She reported on the difficulties in her attempts to define mistake but ultimately stated that she would be using the word throughout the book in a way that was synonymous with “error” or “blunder”, among other words.

She mentioned James Reason and discussed in some detail his now classic book “Human Error” (1990). While in this discussion, she brought up two categories of errors, active and latent. I haven’t checked the accuracy of her quoting yet, but she provided a quote allegedly from Reason about the two types:

“…active failures are like mosquitoes. They can be swatted one by one, but they still keep coming. The best remedies are to create more effective defenses and to drain the swamps in which they breed. The swamps … are the ever present latent conditions.”
– James Reason as quoted by Alina Tugend[p.14]

Deeper in the chapter she mentioned hindsight bias. She brought up a metaphor about a tunnel and how the tunnel may look clear and easy from the outside, those inside the tunnel don’t have the perspective to avoid errors. She used a personal example to further illustrate this metaphor. Her example was about her father who was a Jew and lived in Berlin, Germany until 1939, which is about 6 years after Hitler had risen to power. The way she tied the metaphor in was that Germany was the tunnel and those outside could see how terrible things had gotten but seeing that from inside the tunnel was more difficult.

She proceeded to cover some ground on the neurological aspects of error, bringing up studies on humans and others on monkeys. This portion went over the ways the brain reacts when it makes mistakes and what it does to avoid those in the future.

“Lehrer points out that the best way to become an expert in your field is to focus on your mistakes, “to consciously consider the errors being internalized by your dopamine neurons.””
Alina Tugend[p.25]

The above quote was in a paragraph that went on to talk about how a grand master in chess would go over all the moves in his games even if he won them to review them for errors and to identify what he could have done better. I can relate to this pertaining to some talks that I’ve had with people especially when I first started recording conversations for YouTube. It is interesting to me to see how this analytical behavior carries across fields, from chess to public speaking and beyond.

Two categories of perfectionists were named; adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionists strive to be the best they can but also are fine with being just okay or even bad at some things. Maladaptive perfectionists want to be the best at everything and they think any mistake they make means they have become utter failures and that their friends and acquaintances will think so too. One thing mentioned that causes maladaptive perfectionists to fail is that they set their goals too high. Because they can’t possibly achieve the goals that they set, they are bound for failure and when that failure hits, it hits them hard. The existence of these categories is debatable and so this paragraph isn’t the end all of the discussion on perfectionism. Pages 32-35 contain a scale for gaging perfectionism called the “Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale”.

Chapter 2

Pages 41-72

Chapter two is titled “It Starts Early” and it starts out by commenting on an article titled “How Not To Talk To Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise” (2007). I short, kids who are praised for their intelligence are less willing to take risks and make mistakes compared to the kids who are praised for their efforts (regardless of the outcome).

“…we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”
– Carol Dweck as quoted by Tugend[p.42]

Dweck identified two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. Fixed mindsets are those which believe they cannot change. Growth mindsets are those which believe they can. The fixed mindset typically doesn’t seem any room for improvement while the growth mindset does. I think these categorizations were based on the results of a study on 400 NYC 5th graders which was briefly discussed on pages 43 through 46. The main impact on the perception of the children appears to me to be the way in which the adult talks to them, either praising them for being smart or praising them for working hard. I found the way the narratives were reportedly internalized to be interesting. I’ll also note that it was stated that people can hold both of these mindsets simultaneously depending on what subject is being discussed.

The chapter continued on to talk about the various ways in which parents react to the mistakes of their kids and then the way in which teachers react to the mistakes of their students. Both of these sections drew upon real life examples and the gist that I took away from it is that the best way to react to mistakes is complicated. On one hand you want to help correct the mistake but on the other you want to help the child or student understand how to correct the mistake themselves and how to avoid making it again in the future. There are more complexities than just that one dichotomy. Another thing to be aware of is the words which are used when addressing mistakes. Are they hostile or compassionate? Word choice can have serious impacts on learning.

Perceptions of others in light of fixed/growth mindsets are discussed too. A study is mentioned* where American students and Chinese students were asked to give their opinion on a talk given by a person who had done better in an area than themselves. The results showed that the majority of the Americans believed the speaker was boasting and showing off but the majority of the Chinese believed the speaker was making an attempt to help those who did worse to do better. I haven’t read the original study, but based on Tugend’s retelling I don’t think the speaker was necessarily doing one or the other. The speaker was just recalling their own experience. If correct, this is kind of an interesting study to me into how personal beliefs can get projected onto others whether intentionally or not.[p.68]

*Heyman, G. D., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2008). Reasoning about the disclosure of success and failure to friends among children in the United States and China. Developmental Psychology, 44(4), 908–918.

Chapter 3

Pages 73-106

Chapter 3 is titled “Fail Often, Fast, and Cheap”, a saying from the company Procter & Gamble.[p.89] It opens with a tale about the economic collapse of 2008/9 and how it was a result of a string of mistakes. She name dropped Chris Argyris who reportedly is a fundamental theorist for organizational learning. She brought him up while talking about “single-loop” and “double-loop” learning, the latter of which is much more difficult than the prior. I want to learn more about these two learning styles.

It goes on to mention two types of theories; “a theory in use and an espoused theory”.[p.78] The first one is the governing model that people live by and the second one is the governing model that people claim to live by. These two can either be the same, where someone espouses the truth about their model, or not (where someone fails to accurately report their model). I think if there is a difference it is often unintentional, but I can see there being potential to intentionally lie about that.

“…mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them.”
Aronson & Tavris as quoted by Tugend[p.79]

An exercise that was mentioned involved sharing a mistake you made with a group of people but not justifying it at all or providing any information about how you reacted to it. Apparently this was a difficult task for a seminar full of high-ranking business people.

Another story was about “blame-culture”. It didn’t mention priming, but priming was in effect in an experiment with two groups of people listening to Arnold Schwarzenegger comment on mistakes he had made. One group listened to a clip where Arnold took responsibility for his mistakes while the other group listened to him blame others for his mistakes. The members of the two groups then wrote about mistakes they themselves had made and the results showed correlation between the responses, where the group that listened to Arnold take responsibility ended up taking more responsibility for their mistakes while the group that listened to Arnold blame others ended up blaming others more. I don’t know the validity of this study but it would be interesting to repeat on two groups that have never heard about any of this before to see if similar results would be produced. There are a lot of factors but I think a repeated study like this would be fascinating.

One benefit of making mistakes is that you can see what not to do in the future. This helps you fast-track your way to success. Something that I’ve seen many times over the past couple of years working on this website and talking to other people with similar sites is that a lot of people are lax with their citations. My site what sometimes feels like an overwhelming amount of citations, but I am as thorough as I am so I can avoid ever being caught in a situation where I have no clue where the information originated. Is it a mistake not to cite your source at all? I think that depends on the situation, but for historical studies, I’d generally say yes. Does thorough citing help with memory? I’d say absolutely. I’m not using any material in this article from outside of the book but I have cited page numbers that will help me locate the exact page I found a bit of information on. Out of all my recent articles, I think this one might just be the least thoroughly cited. Is this a mistake? I think the answer to that question will vary depending on who answers it. I say no, it’s not a mistake.

Chapter 4

Pages 107-141

Chapter 4 is about mistakes in the medical industry which can be deadly. Two approaches to handling mistakes are detailed, namely the “person” and “systems” approaches. The person approach blames a person or group of persons while the systems approach blames the system in which a person is working. The latter approach addresses the root of the issue.

One major way to prevent errors is to create a checklist with “simple and exact” wording.[p.124] Apparently there are numerous studies indicating that groups with members who know each other’s names work better than groups with members who don’t.

“So the idea, again, is to look at the problem, not the person, and ask these three key questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What do we do to prevent it from happening in the future?”
– Alina Tugend[p.132]

The chapter ends by putting emphasis on how developing strong communication can help prevent mistakes.

Chapter 5

Pages 143-158

Chapter 5 is about mistakes in the field of aviation. This chapter reminded me of the legend of the three brothers where one treats illnesses after they have developed, one treats them while they are developing, and the final one treats them before they develop. It’s been 5+ years since I’ve heard the story but I think I got that right based on memory.

This chapter goes to further highlight the importance of making lists, recording and studying mistakes, and clear, effective communication.

“Learn from the mistakes of others, because you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson as quoted by Tugend[p.158]

Chapter 6

Pages 159-187

Chapter 6 focused on the similarities and differences in how males and females responded to mistakes and criticisms.

Chapter 7

Pages 189-213

Chapter 7 focused on reactions to mistakes made across different cultures. One large different between Japanese and American cultures is that Japanese cultures are founded more on group achievement where as American cultures are focused on the achievements made by a single person, and these difference play into how mistakes are handled in each culture.

“for Americans, errors tend to be interpreted as an indication of failure in learning the lesson. For Chinese and Japanese, they are an index of what still needs to be learned.”
– James Stigler as quoted by Tugend[p.192]

The chapter ends by emphasizing the importance of understanding each others backgrounds and how teamwork can reduce mistakes.

Chapter 8

Pages 215-245

Chapter 8 focuses on how to apologize when a mistake has been made. One thing that stuck out to me was the portion of this chapter that discussed appropriately timing an apology and how it’s important to know when the right time to apologize is.

“A proper apology has three elements: an acknowledgement of the fault or offense, regret for it, and responsibility for it – and, if possible, a way to fix the problem.”
– Alina Tugend[p.217]

When done right, apologies appear to do more good than harm.

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