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29 January 2020updated 30 Jan 2020 5:51am

It’s impossible to live in a state of error-free perfection: the trick is to make the right mistakes

It can be liberating to accept that the whole trick of life is deciding how, not whether, to screw up. And the benefits can often outweigh the costs.

By Ian Leslie

I like to cook, partly because I find it marginally easier to make a good meal than a good paragraph. On days when I’ve tried and failed to write anything palatable, the evening meal can feel like the day’s solitary achievement. This year I have been preparing meals from a cookbook I got for Christmas: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by the Iranian-Californian chef Samin Nosrat. It is an education in the fundamentals of delicious food, which the author defines as the correct balance of those four elements.

Nosrat’s book has been revelatory to me for many reasons, but the main way it has changed my cooking is in the amount of salt I use. She is evangelical about the power of strategically applied sodium chloride to add definition, depth and complexity to food. I am too, now. The drawback is that sometimes I go overboard, almost literally: the other day I served my family a bolognese sauce that tasted like the Dead Sea.

When this happens it’s embarrassing, and I get tempted to end my experiment with salt altogether. But I’ve come to believe that the odd mistake is a price worth paying for the fact that most of the meals I’m making are tastier as a result of my new policy. The error of over-salting functions as a sign that I’m no longer making errors in another direction, by under-seasoning.

In thinking about my mistakes this way, I’m guided by one of my favourite maxims, coined by the Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler: “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time in airports.” Now, I happen to disagree with Stigler on that particular point (I like airports, particularly now they have wi-fi, which enables me to be just as unproductive in an airport as I am anywhere else). But the underlying principle is powerful.

Stigler’s maxim reminds us that while missing a plane is an error, so is wasting time. What I take from this is that in most of the choices we face in life, there are errors either way you turn. This suggests a different way of thinking about errors from our usual one. At work and in life, we strive to eliminate cock-ups, partly because it’s so important to us to appear competent. But mistakes are inevitable. Instead of trying to abolish error from our lives, we should become comfortable with choosing the kinds of errors we want to make.

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This is the way human evolution works, after all, if you conceive of the more unfortunate facts of existence as nature’s errors. Childbirth is a painful experience for most women. That isn’t true of other mammals, which have smaller heads relative to their bodies, and wider pelvises. This is not because evolution is incompetent (or sadistic), but because it decided that the error of making human birth a pain was preferable to the error of making women too wide-hipped to walk upright and human heads too small for big brains.

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An intriguing explanation for human gullibility follows the same logic. Individuals have a well-established bias towards believing the person they’re talking to is honest, even when they’re talking to a liar. Why would evolution make people so vulnerable to deception? The communication scientist Timothy Levine has a theory, cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers: we have evolved a “default to truth” because for our ancestors the benefits of gathering information and making friends outweighed the costs of being duped now and again. People who are highly suspicious by disposition may never make the humiliating mistake of getting ripped off, but they’re more likely to spend their lives feeling isolated and anxious.

Not all errors are treated equally. We tend to over-correct for the socially embarrassing ones, such as over-salting, while being excessively forgiving of the less noticeable kind – blandness, for example. Johan Cruyff, the great Dutch footballer and a pioneering coach, encouraged his goalkeepers to act like an extra outfield player, coming out of the penalty area to prevent loose balls ending up with the opposition. Cruyff noted that keepers have a fear of being lobbed because it makes them look stupid when the ball sails over their head. But on balance, he said, that error is preferable to the less obvious but more pervasive one of ceding possession unnecessarily.

Many of society’s issues get viewed through the wrong lens – the lens of error-free perfection. The choice we face is nearly always between imperfect outcomes. For some of us, the error of a few welfare cheats taking advantage of the system is preferable to the error of designing a welfare state so impervious to free-riders that it makes life harder for the great majority of honest claimants. The adoption of self-driving cars is likely to be stymied by high-profile fatal accidents, which their opponents will say makes them too risky; their advocates will point out that human drivers make fatal mistakes more often, it’s just that we’re so used to them we don’t consider their persistence an outrage.

On an individual level, it can be liberating to accept that the whole trick of life is deciding how, not whether, to screw up. A student may do better in an exam once she feels that nobody is expecting her to answer every question correctly. Every day, somebody starts a new business, fully aware that it may go kaput, having weighed that possibility against another error: creating the regret that comes from never trying in the first place.

When theatre directors give pep talks to their ensembles before an opening night, they often point out that the odd mistake is inevitable. They do so because the worst mistake of all would be for the performers to be so cautious that they forget to put their heart and soul into what they’re about to do. Well, your audience awaits. If it’s not too late to ask, what mistakes do you plan on making in 2020? 


This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out