Departments

Mistakes

The only virtue worth teaching is to acknowledge mistakes without shame and correct them without perversity. If a vice is worth avoiding because it is dangerous, then in time it must manifest as a mistake; so that what is worth teaching is that if your mistake is pointed out to you, you should take it as a favor; and that the only shame in a mistake is loyalty to it.

To acknowledge a mistake is not the same as to reflect on it. Sometimes, when you have taken on a serious responsibility and made a mistake with irreparable harm, then you should be asked – you should ask yourself – what went wrong. But, for most mistakes, to reflect on the mistake is to compound it. Inevitably, if you do many things, you will make many mistakes. If you do few things, you will make few mistakes. But only if you do nothing will you make no mistakes.

The most demoralizing condition possible is capricious punishment. There is more cruelty in mild punishment for no reason than in the harshest punishment for clear reason. Such punishment, if sustained, is too horrible even to rouse the will to die.

To look for hidden faults to blame for the statistically inevitable is to punish yourself with such random cruelty. And even when a mistake is the consequence of a remediable fault, self-reflection is the worst way to discover it. Self-reflection is hard; so hard that, after the difficulty of the inquiry, only a dramatic answer seems plausible, and you diagnose as depravity what was due to indigestion.

The virtue of acknowledging mistakes must be instilled, because it is difficult to acquire. It slows the development of a sense of identity; the contempt for the corrections you receive from certain kinds of people is one of the ways you distinguish yourself from them. And it is probably impossible for an unpracticed adult to acquire – impossible for an adult to face, too late, that what had seemed to be the limits set by nature were only the limits set by pride.

This virtue is so rare, and so unreliable even in those who sometimes have it, that you may ask if it is worth having at all. Can it really be good – even if it is right, can it really be wise – to be without shame among those who blame you? And though this virtue removes self-set limits, it may cost you time making slow progress where your talents do not lie – time you could have saved if you had, at the difficult outset, simply chosen pride in your incompetence.

Yet I believe it is a virtue; the more so because, like all virtues, it can be immoderate. A little uncertainty about your nature saves you from overspecialization and obsolescence; a little time wasted in spreading your roots, saves you from exhausting the soil.