The wonder of blunder

January 26, 1996

Lucy Hodges discovers how to benefit from one's errors. Oscar Wilde said experience was the name we give to our mistakes. If only that were true. Far too many people are paralysed by their mistakes. And too many employers are concerned with playing safe, which squashes risk-taking, producing a stagnant society and constrained individuals.

A team of psychologists from an Oxford-based psychology firm, Pearn Kandola, is hoping to counter such attitudes by stressing the positive effects of errors. "While it is true that there are some mistakes that you don't want to happen even once, on the whole there is great value in mistakes, but only if we can learn from them," they say.

Little research has been done on the common mistakes made at work and how we can use them to improve. Pearn Kandola analysed the mistakes of 230 prominent people, all of whom had written articles for an Independent on Sunday series called "My Biggest Mistake". Its researchers thought that if they could develop a way of talking about mistakes in the workplace, that would help people learn from them.

The researchers found that errors broke down into four main categories. First, some people did not set clear goals or had too many competing priorities. Others messed up in the way they dealt with information. (This was the largest category of mistakes.) People would either only look at a bit of information available - the bit which confirmed their suspicions or the bit they wanted to hear - and ignore contradictory evidence. Or they would make assumptions on the basis of their preconceptions. For example, a toy seller turned down the Mutant Ninja Turtles toy because it did not fit his idea of what a toy was. A third category of people acted on impulse. Conversely, another group of people who fell into that category failed to follow their gut instincts. In the final category were people who failed to reflect on what they are doing - failing, for example, to check that what they thought happened actually happened.

In academe, one of the people who described their mistakes in the Independent series was Pauline Perry, former vice chancellor of South Bank University. Lady Perry's mistake was not to appreciate "how awful the Inner London Education Authority could be".

She wanted to run the former South Bank Polytechnic as a business, but found she was stymied at every turn. The institution was run by 40-odd committees, she says, and it was impossible to reach decisions. The lesson she learnt was not to accept a job without doing the homework, and to remember that any organisation was part of the community.

This year has been designated the Year of Lifelong Learning. How better to begin it than to ponder a few of our mistakes, and to remember Oscar Wilde's maxim.

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