Education

10 immutable laws of mistakes

Mistakes are inevitable. But as Allan Norton explains, certain laws govern how we deal with them, learn from them, conceal them, and even profit from them.

For something so certain, so common, and so potentially destructive, mistakes remain a mystery. Why do we make them? Why do we repeat them? These 10 laws will give you a better understanding of what mistakes are and how to best deal with them.

Law #1: Everyone makes mistakes

"Everyone makes mistakes. That's why there is an eraser on every pencil." -- Japanese proverb

This amusing yet clever Japanese proverb reminds us that there is something innately human about the mistakes we make. It also wisely implies that we have the power to correct our mistakes.

Corollary: Nobody can change law number one.

Law #2: Not all mistakes are bad mistakes

"The only man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything." -- Theodore Roosevelt

Mistakes are going to happen, but that is not always a bad thing. The person who makes no mistakes isn't taking any risks or living life to its fullest. By playing it safe, you may miss out on some of life's greatest rewards. Wise men and women seek perfection but allow themselves the luxury of making mistakes.

If you still believe that all mistakes are bad, consider this question: How can a mistake be considered bad if more is gained than lost? There are many examples of serendipitous mistakes that have led to great discoveries. Penicillin, for example, was discovered by Alexander Fleming when he accidentally left a petri dish open. And how about those mistakes that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? My favorite, the Inverted Jenny stamp, was sold in November of 2007 for $977,500!

Law #3: Mistakes not seen by others are not mistakes

"When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is near by to hear it, does it make a sound?" -- Charles Riborg Mann and George Ransom Twiss

If a mistake is made and no one knows about it, is it a mistake? Okay, to you it is a mistake. But if no one else is aware of your mistake, it isn't a mistake -- assuming, of course, that you correct your error before someone else does see it. It's not necessary to proclaim every mistake you make, especially the stupid ones. Why unnecessarily damage your image and possibly your career? But you can pass on the lessons you have learned from your mistakes and still be a hero for a day.

Law #4: Ignorance does not excuse your mistakes

"Ignorance of the law excuses no man..." -- John Selden

Likewise, not knowing a system feature or behavior that leads to a mistake cannot be used as an excuse. I learned VB transaction processing to speed up the loading of data into a remote database. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the consequences of processing large numbers of transactions before committing the records. The network crashed and I owned up to my mistake. It may have been an unintentional mistake, but pleading ignorance wouldn't have changed the fact that I was responsible for crashing the network.

Law #5: Mistakes occur at the very worst time

"If there is a worse time for something to go wrong, it will happen then." -- Corollary to Murphy's Law

I have always appreciated Murphy's Law and its corollaries, including Murphy's computer laws. Perhaps that is because there is a certain amount of truth in them. It is no coincidence that frequently, the worst mistakes occur at the worst time. End-of-project mistakes happen due to stress, time pressures, and fatigue. A deadline often leads to mistakes in the scramble to complete a task. Less time to recognize and fix mistakes is often the genesis of what can and will go wrong.

Law #6: Mistakes beget mistakes

"Desperate people do desperate things." -- Anonymous

Your heart is racing, beads of sweat are forming on your brow, and your stomach feels like it has both butterflies and moths. You have just made the kind of mistake that can be career-ending. How will you proceed? You decide to quickly fix your mistake before someone else sees it. But this is no time to make another mistake. First, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself several questions:

  • Will I take unnecessary and dangerous risks to correct my mistake?
  • Am I in over my head and need help?
  • Can I fix this problem without making it worse?

You are more prone to make bad decisions when under a large amount of stress. The last thing you want in a career-defining moment is a comedy of errors. Stay calm, remain levelheaded, and take the time you need to avoid additional mistakes.

Law #7: Mistakes made with computers propagate faster and cause more damage

"Computers have enabled people to make more mistakes faster than almost any invention in history, with the possible exception of tequila and hand guns." -- Mitch Ratcliffe

Oh, the power you wield as an IT professional! You have the power to damage so much with the smallest of mistakes. Use an OR instead of an AND or put a decimal point in the wrong place, and all kinds of bad things can happen. The work you do is "supercharged" once it is run on a computer. The pressures to produce perfection are enormous. Since we all make mistakes, the only reasonable course is to take great care in the proofreading and testing of your work before turning it on to the world.

Law #8: Mistakes of inaction are mistakes nonetheless

"I never worry about action, but only about inaction." - Winston Churchill

As you get older, you begin to realize the mistakes you have made by not asking out your high school sweetheart, not fighting for what is right, or any number of other what-if situations. Similarly, you may second-guess not getting that certification, not taking that project lead position, or other decisions of inaction you have made on the job. The tragedy is that these decisions are often life-altering. Equally tragic, whether they were mistakes or not may become obvious only in the clarity of hindsight. Other mistakes of inaction are clearer to identify as true mistakes:

  • Failing to communicate
  • Failing to research in detail
  • Failing to analyze thoroughly
  • Failing to test all possible outcomes
  • Failing to perform root cause analysis

Law #9: Failing to own up to your mistakes is a mistake

"You may make mistakes, but you are not a failure until you start blaming someone else." -- Mary Pickford

If you can't quickly fix your mistake, hiding it is almost always a bad idea. Finding the humility to admit your error ASAP will allow others to come to your aid. More knowledgeable members of your team can help determine the full scope and impact of your mistake and help in the remediation process. You compound your mistake further if you blame someone else or a peer is implicated for what you have done -- and no one with a conscience wants to live with that.

Law #10: Failing to learn from your mistakes is a mistake

"The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing." -- John Powell

It has been said that life is a journey, not a destination. Mistakes are part of that journey, and it is an opportunity lost if we do not learn and grow from those errors we encounter along the way. But learning is not enough. We must also put into practice what we have learned or we have learned nothing at all.

The bottom line

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." -- Rita Mae Brown

If it is true that you learn more from your mistakes than your triumphs, I must be a genius. And yet I am no genius. More than once while walking along the path of life, I have failed in the learning process. I've caught myself making the same mistake over and over and not fully understanding why. The flowchart in Figure A helps to explain where the learning process can fail.

Figure A

The "learning from mistakes" process

When you make a mistake for the first time, you either recognize it or you don't. If you recognize it, you fix it if you can. It's a fairly simple process. The second time you are presented with a similar situation, you must first recognize the situation, remember the mistake you made, and then change your behavior. Fail at any of those three decision points and you will repeat the mistake. That is a more complex process and the reason why we repeat our mistakes.

My favorite mistake is the intentional one. Navajo rug makers include a small imperfection called a "spirit string" to allow the "spirit" that they have put into the work to escape and because only God is perfect. Lest we forget, this is perhaps the greatest "mistake" quote of all: "To err is human, to forgive divine." -- Alexander Pope. And the world could use a little less human and a little more divine right now.

About

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

97 comments
ercoder
ercoder

"Crimes" made that are NOT seen by anyone ARE STILL mistakes... ;-) But one could counter and say that crimes that are intended by an individual are not mistakes. And I'll double counter with #4 that "Ignorance does not excuse your mistakes". Law is the law. Not knowing the law or breaking the law is a mistake. And if one is simply Zeus... I fall back to Law #1. LOL

aboba0
aboba0

Tired people make stupid mistakes. I've seen it happen and done my best, when it was in my power, to prevent it. I've seen teams plan to work through the night because what they had expected to complete in a work day didn't get completed due to unforseen difficulties (generally the result of not enough up front planning, testing and validation). It starts with just doing a bit more to finish, then its 6PM. Then the end is in sight and its 8PM. Now they're really almost done and its 10PM. Then only a few more oversights to correct and its heading for midnight, they're finding more E's & O's as they plow though the "only a few more..." Finally I insist. Time to pack up, go get sleep and return in the morning with a fresh set of eyes because tired people make stupid mistakes. The work is "completed," the system is functioning and off the consultants go to the next situation. Not surprising, as time goes by, more and more unnecessary "work" is found in the effort that was done to make it work. Rather than taking the time to understand requirements clearly and the configuration items needed to implement those functions as desired lots of unnecessary work was done to "make it work." And tired people were just adding configuration elements experimentally to try and make things work. Never let tired people go on to make stupid mistakes. Don't let people set things up for you if the desired outcome isn't well understood and the solution vetted in a test environment. Your production environment is not the place to "make it work" it's the place to set up the working production configuration.

cbeckers
cbeckers

"...unintentional mistake..." is redundant. Logically, is there such a thing as an 'intentional mistake'? "Intentional mistake" would be an oxymoron.

djf34sadd
djf34sadd

When teaching TQM and the systematic approach to activities the mantra preached was quite simple - "Making a mistake is human and inevitable - making the same mistake again because of unforeseen circumstances is possible - making the same mistake again for the same reasons is blind stupidity" It should also be recognised that if you like 'firefight management' your competitors will be the first to provide more wood but last in line with a bucket of water!

manigloria
manigloria

I was also intending to point out the mistake (2 Ls vs 1 L) and also thought it was intentional. It isn't, is it?

jsclmedave
jsclmedave

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." I see you have WORKED with CSC. Which undoubtedly makes you more than qualified to write an article titled "10 immutable laws of mistakes". I am glad to see you made it out with your sanity and some hair left. Nice article. Cheers!

rhonin
rhonin

When a mistake occurs in business, finger pointing will commence. This only delays those of us who have to "fix" the mistake.

johnbrandy
johnbrandy

About four years ago I picked up a DVD at a tent sale where wood and metal working tools were being sold. The company, SawStop, was featuring in this DVD table saws that utilized the then new technology that prevented accidental amputations. If an activated cutting blade was approached to closely, or even contacted, it would automatically stop completely. To my surprise the narrator indicated that most table saw accidents happen to experienced operators. These mistakes seemly resulted from overconfidence, over reliance on habit or routine, and similar mindsets. Therefore, as I perceive this particular information, there is an order or category of mistakes that directly result from knowledge and experience. At present, I cannot deduce the reason/s or perhaps the missing element/s needed to fully explain, or minimize this mistake. I graciously offer my comments for its potential value and further discussion. Thank you.

pfeiffep
pfeiffep

and it's all small stuff....... Wonderful piece.

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

Great article but LAW8 regarding Inaction is missing at least one critical item and I say at least as there may be more. That key item is: The Inaction Of Questioning As in Failing To question government and its actions (for whatever reason be it the fear that one person can do nothing or that nothing is wrong and so there is no need to question no matter the action) I know this is a Tech site & blog but this piece about Mistakes is not limited to Technology and so to be complete the inclusion of failing to act on questioning government is a significant inaction. Government has grown out of control and mostly because of failure of Action or Inaction on our part, all of us.

andrew.wambua
andrew.wambua

Alan that was well presented. Many a time we make mistakes and really go on blaming others and not taking time to reflect and see what we can learn from them. Life is all about adventures and we neither know everything and one time in life we have to fabble before we are in the right course and track. Keep up. It was a blessing.

it
it

Or, when is it determined that an action is deemed a mistake?

YetAnotherBob
YetAnotherBob

There is one more I have often used with employees. "An Expert is someone who has already made the mistakes you are making. You become an expert one mistake at a time." This should be used after applying the law above to fix your mistakes, or ask for help. BTW the first corollary to Murphy's law is "Murphy was an Optimist."

pschulz
pschulz

They are an expression of a specific mental condition. Ever seen someone unhappy? He is liable to make more mistakes. Someone who is sick makes also mistakes. Should clearly show that this is not an unchanging thing which is part of your genes or fate. You DO NOT need to make mistakes. Making mistake is an indicator of an underlying condition which you CAN handle. I know it is unheard of in these times where we all seem to be so effect of everything around us. But it can be done ...

AnnKBrea
AnnKBrea

Wonderfully written and I came across this at the PERFECT time! Was starting to feel like I was making ???mistakes??? in every aspect of my life (not just IT), but after reading your article I am reminded that is a good thing! It means I am actually doing things and taking chances and presenting myself with learning opportunities to get it right the next time, or time after that. The best thing is keep trying and learning and tweaking and when I finally get it right my rewards will be endless! Life really is GREAT! Thank you for the reminder.

Lackosleep
Lackosleep

Unless of course, it's the environment's fault. Then your mistakes are not your fault, of course. I am often amazed at how some people these days (makes me sound old, eh!) are so aptly able to dismiss responsibility for their mistakes simply because they were unintentional. I once had a barely twenty-something girl in my office who crashed the company car into the back of another car, and explained to me, with no uncertainty, how it absolutely was not her fault. This is how she resolutely absolved herself from any responsibility... and she wasn't kidding! "the car in front of me just stopped to make a left-hand turn" incredulous me: "you were following too close to brake?" "oh no. I had time to step on the brakes, and I did... but the car didn't stop" incredulous me: "so it was the car's fault for not stopping in time? not that you were too close?" "well no, it wasn't the car's fault either. it would have stopped in time...if the road wasn't wet" incredulous me: "so again, you were following too close?" "no, didn't you hear me? I just told you I stepped on the brakes in time, but the car didn't stop because the road was wet from the rain." incredulous me: "so you're saying since you did what you were supposed to by stepping on the brakes, and that the car would have stopped had the road not been wet, it wasn't your fault?. So then, who's fault was it?" "well, duh...haven't you been listening? it was the environment's fault. It's not like I have control over the rain! ...sheeesh!"

sboverie
sboverie

The best job I had was one where the team focused on improving themselves. When ever a mistake was found, or a complaint, the team would talk about what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. The focus was on learning from the mistakes and not assigning blame. Sadly, in 35+ years experience, this was the only place that had this attitude. My current job is nearly all reactionary, even when something obvious is coming down the pike. In this environment, mistakes happen and are repeated because no one is interested in learning from those mistakes.

keith15
keith15

"Mistake Recogized" :) And should there be an arrow on the No path from "Mistaken Behavior Modified?" ?? Yes, I'm picky :)

Kostaghus
Kostaghus

They say clever people learn from their own mistakes, intelligent people learn from others' mistakes, geniuses never make mistakes. Only those who are really dumb never learn... Ergo, if you can only learn from mistakes, geniuses are really dumb... ?!?

promytius1
promytius1

Wait; it won't help; they ONLY thing they do well is make mistakes. Never mind.

beck.joycem
beck.joycem

Since my children were small I've said "If something isn't working, stop doing it". It sounds obvious, but few can claim they are never guilty. The trick to stop making this mistake is recognising that you are making it in the first place.

djf34sadd
djf34sadd

When I was teaching management sciences around the world my two essential items to be learned and understood were as follows No.1 'It is better and cheaper to work systematically than symptomatically' the second followed this concept No.2 'Making a mistake is human, making the same mistake for different reasons is coincidental however making the same mistake for the same reasons is blind stupidity.' Although I am now retired I still see many instances of these two mandates not being understood and folloed in industry around the world.

rjfandre
rjfandre

When I make a mistake (not infrequently) the first question is 'Why did the validation not reveal this?' Whether validation is testing, reading through or just 'does it feel right?' it is usually the validation that has failed in addition to the process. In addressing the root cause we should not forget to revisit the validation strategy as that will also help to prevent subsequent mistakes.

alainbastien
alainbastien

When one intentionally commit a Mistake in view to cause prejudice, imprisonment or harm to an innocent.. then it is no more a mistake or error IT'S A SIN.

eribiste
eribiste

Thank you for the thought provoking common sense in your article. That flow chart though; even though I'm perfect I still die!

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

...turns out I was mistaken, though. ;)

aflynnhpg
aflynnhpg

I normally only comment if I have a clever or witty quip to make at the author, but this was a really good article. Thanks for posting it!

ValFitzAndrew
ValFitzAndrew

Make one. Deal with it! Not dealing with it is worse and will eventually cause worse to happen both to the system erred and yourself.

liljim
liljim

Years ago a friend taught me this axiom of Programming. 1. Every program has at least one error. 2. Every program could be improved by making it one line shorter. Corollary: The perfect program is one line line long, with one error, that should never have been written. Ciao

Slayer_
Slayer_

Can we put this guy in the stockades and throw fruit at him?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The name can be spelled with one L or two Ls. Many English names can be spelled in more than one way.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." When a person knows enough to think, incorrectly, that they are an expert on the subject. Most 'experts' are wise enough to know and admit that they don't know it all. Interesting topic - thanks, John, for bringing it up.

RU7
RU7

Familiarity. The more familiar one is with a task, the more likely one is to take shortcuts. Also, the more likely it is to let one's attention wander. A shortcut might reduce the time available for the flow chart's situation recognition block. Inattention might increase the time it takes for that block. That is critical because, in order to avoid the mistake, the time available to recognize must exceed the time it takes. Another good example of this concept is that a majority of traffic accidents happen within 25 miles of home.

RU7
RU7

An action is only a mistake if the resulting situation is undesirable. Therefore, any given action could be considered a mistake by some and a success by others.

RU7
RU7

the mistake in this post?

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Hello Ann. I am glad to read that you found the article encouraging and have shrugged off that black mood. You have a great attitude and that will help you keep life GREAT! Thank you for the kind words.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

"My current job is nearly all reactionary..." I don't know how to survive in that kind of environment. I doubt if I could for long - my tongue would be sore from biting it so often! :-) Fortunately, my experiences have been mostly of the "best job" type working for great companies. Perhaps it is just easier for managers to deal with short-term thinking. Mid and long-term thinking is more successful in the long run but many corporations and the stock market are geared toward the cheap, quick-fix. Eventually that short-sided management technique leads to poor performance, loss of customers and in the most extreme cases the restructuring of the company in chapter 7 or chapter 11.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

...that there was a terminating arrow at the "Mistake Made" block when I realized I was inconsistent in my arrow usage. There is an arrow from the "Can You Fix It?" block to the "No" path. You get extra credit for recognizing the "mistake" and kudos Keith for understanding and so closely examining the flowchart.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Government fails most often at the "Mistaken Behavior Modified?" decision point. Those aren't stupid people in D.C.

RU7
RU7

Exemplum Eximius. Two lines with four mistakes.

Kostaghus
Kostaghus

Well, in my opinion, it it's not working you definitely need a BIGGER hammer!

RU7
RU7

Making a different mistake for the same reasons. That would probably also qualify as coincidental.

RU7
RU7

If the situation is not recognizable, there is nothing against which to validate the situation.

promytius1
promytius1

"cause prejudice" is a sin? In what church, the Church of Political Correctness? That's absurd. Define "innocent"; define "prejudice"; and define how one commits the oxymoronic act of an "intentional mistake" - huh? Again, absurd. We're mostly just talking tech here, not morality, bud!

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Thanks for the chuckle. I would have put in an 'out' for the perfect person if I thought that it was remotely possible to attain perfection. I didn't include the possibility of an afterlife in the flowchart. I prefer the KISS method. Perhaps I should have included this positive outcome in addition to 'death'. ;-)

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

It's comments like yours that help keep me writing.

peter.turtle1
peter.turtle1

Taking it to the limits, surely the corollary is that the perfect program is 0 lines long, which would imply that everything is an error

ktpwas
ktpwas

For many years a sign hung on my office door: We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over. By the way, I enjoy your blog, and I'm not a techie. Not at all. Far from it

RU7
RU7

Or short-sighted.