Everyone makes mistakes. In a world where almost nothing is certain, you can bet the ranch that mistakes will happen. Making them is as normal as breathing. Warren Buffett makes them; so do Tiger Woods, bus drivers, airline pilots and neurosurgeons—anyone who is alive, was alive or will be alive. No one can escape. We are all doomed to err.
I’ve missed my freeway exit, slept past my stop on the train, left the back door unlocked, run out of gas and made my share of investing mistakes. Each one was embarrassing, some costly, and all of them were uncomfortable, some excruciatingly so. But more than anything else, mistakes laid the pathway of my own growth—and I’m not alone.
Chess and Surgery
Elizabeth Spiegel may be to chess what John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson combined were to basketball. But where Wooden, Auerbach and Jackson achieved their greatness with some of the best basketball talent of all time, Spiegel created her chess juggernaut at a regular run-of-the mill intermediate school in Brooklyn—with a student population drawn from the surrounding lower income, working-class neighborhood.
In local, regional and national tournaments there may be better individual players than those from I.S. 318, but in aggregate—as a team—no school anywhere in the country can come close to matching their regular success at every grade. Year in, year out their level of excellence is so consistent that, if they don’t win a tournament, they are always in the running.
What is her secret? Of course there is the part that can’t be replicated—her unique combination of toughness and respect for her students. But at the end of the day it is her simple, passionate and consistent focus on mistakes. She forces her students to see where they are weak—to look at their errors, evaluate why they are happening and correct them. It is this persistent insistence that they focus on those very things they’d sooner forget that has made I.S. 318 the best chess school in the country bar none—and given her students tools for success that will serve them the rest of their lives.
“I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are,” says Spiegel (quoted in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed).
Five years ago at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston a patient awoke in the recovery room and asked her surgeon why there were bandages on the wrong side of her body. This kind of outcome is everyone’s worst nightmare—and as medical mistakes are now by some estimates the third largest cause of death after heart disease and cancer, it is a nightmare that is happening far too frequently.
As recounted in Kathryn Schultz’s book Being Wrong, the surgeon and the officers of Beth Israel reacted to this situation in a way that can only be termed extraordinary (and unfortunately uncommon): The surgeon explained what happened, how the mistake was made, then apologized sincerely to the patient and promised a path to correct the error (which was done). Within days the hospital sent out an email to all 5,000 employees informing them of what happened. The hospital also issued a press release taking full responsibility and doubling down on existing efforts to reduce medical errors.
Hospital officials even started publishing medical error records online in an effort to be completely transparent. As painful and embarrassing as it was to admit fallibility, they knew that the only way to achieve excellence and reduce errors was to be brutally and publically honest about their screw ups.