If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.

This is the first in five posts on Ray Dalio’s book “Principles.”

What is it that makes a mistake catastrophic? How do you keep yourself from making mistakes if they’re the only way to learn new things? How do we manage the fallout that occurs when our best intentions don’t turn out the way we want? Read on to learn more.

Mistakes are tricky. Mark Zuckerburg made the pursuit of mistakes Facebook’s goal. Facebook’s motto is: “Move fast and break things.” But what if we break the wrong things? What if we move too fast that we break the entire system?

“Former Facebook employees say the engineering-driven, ‘move fast and break things’ approach worked when the company was smaller but now gets in the way of understanding the societal problems it faces. It’s one thing to break a product, but if you move fast and break democracy, or move fast and break journalism, how do you measure the impact of that—and how do you go about trying to fix it?” – Mathew Ingram, The Facebook Armagedon

What is is about mistakes that makes them so bad? Why do we feel the need to hide them? I believe the worst parts of mistakes are the unforeseeable consequences our mistakes  can wreak on those we’re trying to help. Mistakes are looked down on because they are  painful.

“Pain instructs.” – Benjamin Franklin

Mistakes as a way to learn something new. To test the limits. To locate the fuzzy boundaries of our understanding and figure out exaclty how reality works.

Whenever I make mistakes I try to hide them. I don’t want others to know that I don’t do immaculate work. I want to always show that I am on top of things, that I get it, that I’m capable, and that I don’t need help. Perhaps I need to pursue mistakes more openly.

In “Principles” Dalio says,

“Mistakes will cause you pain, but you shouldn’t try to shield yourself or others from it. Pain is a message that something is wrong and it’s an effective teacher that one shouldn’t do that wrong thing again. To deal with your own and others’ weaknesses well you must acknowledge them frankly and openly and work to find ways of preventing them from hurting you in the future. It’s at this point that many people say, No thanks, this isn’t for me – I’d rather not have to do deal with these things. But this is against your and your organizations’ best interests – and will keep you from achieving your goals. It seems to me that if you look back on yourself a year ago and aren’t shocked by how stupid you were, you haven’t learned much.” – Ray Dalio

When you make mistakes take some courage from Dalio who writes, “Everyone makes mistakes. The main difference is that successful people learn from them and unsuccessful people don’t.”

If that’s not enough of a suggestion to make mistakes, consider that every mistake you make now will save you from it in the future: “Every mistake that you make and learn from will save you from thousands of similar mistakes in the future.” – Ray Dalio

So take some advice from Jeff Bezos who says,

“You must not let your need to be right be more important than your need to find out what’s true.” – Jeff Bezos

Don’t let your ego get in the way,

“Intelligent people who embrace their mistakes and weaknesses substantially outperform their peers who have the same abilities but bigger ego barriers.” – Ray Dalio

So to wrap it up, make sure that you’re always pursuing mistakes because they will save you from making them in the future, make sure you constrain the fallout of your mistakes by only experimenting in safe spaces and with things that can safely go wrong, and make sure you clean up after yourself when you’re through.

Do you have any suggestions on how to make the regular pursuit of mistakes easier, safer, and more valuable? Contact me


Author: David Neely

Professional Software Developer. Technology and Web Coordinator at the University of Hawaii's Manoa Career Center.