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.


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...

Editor's Picks