#2. You Don't Learn from Your Mistakes
Sometimes we make mistakes.
But that's cool. After all, we have to fail to get better, right? We can all think of times in our lives when we were new and sucky at something and kept screwing up, but then slowly and slowly got better at it. Inspirational music may have been playing. There may have been some splashing around on the beach in some tiny clothes, too.
Regardless of how much homoerotic clutching is in your personal success story, the lesson was that it was the failures that made us better.
Except no, no, no they didn't. We learn far more from success than we do failure. MIT scientists hooked up something to a monkey's brain, a laser probably, and then watched as the monkey tried various activities successfully and unsuccessfully. They found that every success registered brain activity that influenced later attempts in a way that failures didn't. Failures didn't seem to do anything. Doing something right made it far easier for the monkey to do it right again in the future.
So what then to make of the old advice? Well, I'd suggest it might better be rephrased "We learn by trying again." (Assuming you have the common sense to not fail the same way twice.)
Success! No, wait ...
At a higher level, we can look at another one of those pesky cognitive biases, in this case the choice-supportive bias. This is what happens when you make a choice and then immediately seek out justifications that you made the right choice. Evidence that supports the choice is promoted over evidence that suggests otherwise. (If you've ever met anyone who bought a Mac, you'll have seen this one in action.) What makes this so insidious is that in cases where the choice was actually and objectively a mistake, it's incredibly difficult to figure that out, because your own damned brain will fight like hell to prevent you from seeing it.
If you've ever met anyone who installed Linux, you'll have seen this, too.
And yet, despite all of the preposterous shortcuts our brains take, usually without telling us, our brains don't seem to lack for confidence. We probably even have an excess of it. For example, when people say they're 100 percent certain of something, there's probably about an 80 percent chance they're right. Ninety-three percent of us seem to think we're above-average drivers. And apparently 84 percent of all Frenchmen consider themselves above-average lovers.
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Which is statistically unlikely, but scientists have been unable to attach enough lasers to French women's vaginas to be sure.
We all seem to think we're above average at everything we do, and bizarrely, we grow even more confident in our abilities the less we know about something. As Charles Darwin, a man made famous for killing God, and certainly no stranger to confidence, once stated:
"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
More formally, this is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. There are a few possible causes for this, but basically, if you're doing something that you're totally incompetent at, you might be so bad at it that you don't even know you're doing it wrong. The decision-making processes you use to answer a question are the same processes that you'd use to evaluate whether it's right or not. We don't just not see our blind spots, we don't know they exist. It's yet another way we don't learn from our mistakes.
But even the ultra-competent can be prone to overconfidence. Consider the case of surgeons, who are by most measures above average at most of the things they do.
But not, sadly, at lovemaking.
But surgeons are still human and inevitably make mistakes. Instruments get left in patients, surgeries get started without the right supplies, leg bones get attached to the neck bone. It's a serious problem, and people have, haha, actually died because of it.
The instruments left in patients thing. Not this. That was actually a joke.
A really easy way of minimizing these avoidable errors is by using checklists. Is the patient here? Check. Are there enough leeches? Check. That kind of thing. Basically, pages and pages of utterly obvious bookkeeping, the kind of stuff any expert already knows how to do. Boring though they may be, the airline industry uses checklists for everything, and it's one of the reasons why airlines have such preposterously good safety records.
And yet when a surgeon tried to implement checklists in various hospitals, he encountered significant resistance among the surgeons he suggested it to. They considered checklists pedantic and insulting, a waste of their time, full of things they already knew how to do. The very idea that they could forget the 18th step in a 57-step surgery, a pretty plausible-sounding error that happens all the time, was unthinkable to them.
"I did not go to school for eight years to be treated like I was fallible. NOW KISS MY GOD DAMNED RING."
And so there you have it. Dumb or smart, you're basically doomed to fuck up at everything you do. The only solution is apparently to use a checklist, which is boring and insulting and something you're not gonna want to do.
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Hell, for all I know, you'll probably just eat the fucking thing.