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Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong Hardcover – March 17, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Alina Tugend on Better by Mistake

I wrote Better by Mistake to explore an ongoing tension: We’re taught when we’re young that we learn from mistakes, but the reality is that most of us hate and dread them.

A friend of mine loves to tell the anecdote of driving her son home from kindergarten and asking what he learned. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing?” she asked. “You didn’t learn a single thing?” “No,” he replied. “My teacher said you learn by making mistakes, and I didn’t make any today.”

Imagine if that attitude survived throughout our lives. If, when we thought about how our day went, we didn’t regret our mistakes, but proudly thought about those we had made and what we had drawn from them.

It takes work—but we can try to recapture that philosophy. Through research and interviews, I found that there are ways all of us can shift our thinking about mistakes. And in doing so, we’ll learn how to leave behind the defensiveness and accusations that too often accompany errors and experiences of failure. We can be more willing to embrace risks and work creatively. We can feel good about the process, not just about the result.

It begins young. Research shows that children praised for being smart are often far less willing to take on a challenging task than those who are praised for trying hard. The lesson? We need to emphasize effort and deemphasize results. We can appreciate that we—and they—can’t be perfect, nor is it a goal we should aim for. And we should be careful of sending the contradictory message that it’s all right to make mistakes but not where it counts.

We’ve learned that mistakes aren’t usually the fault of one bad apple, but far more often are caused by latent problems that a blatant error can bring to light. If we focus on the superficial error without doing the harder—yet ultimately more profitable—work of examining what led to the blunder, we don’t learn the lessons mistakes can teach us.

In writing this book, I’ve discovered that everything hinges on communication. Giving and receiving criticism and negative feedback, as well as apologizing and accepting apologies, are difficult to do in a way that encourages rather than shuts down the conversation. I’ve tried to convey to readers just how they can approach this tough but ultimately fruitful process.

Research has shown us that there are tools we can use—all of us, from parents to teachers to doctors to pilots to CEOs—to help us communicate far more successfully. Improved communication can lead to mistakes being a source of education, not of shame. And it can ultimately improve our work and our relationships with our bosses, spouses, and children.

If we can forgive ours and others’ errors—if we can put in our best effort, but at the same time acknowledge that perfection is a myth—then we’re on the right track.

From Publishers Weekly

In her absorbing first book, veteran journalist Tugend confronts a common but complicated subject: making mistakes. Beginning with two universal truths—people are not perfect and mistakes happen—the author first defines her subject as separate from "error" and in consideration of its outcome (mistakes have led to countless scientific advances, for instance). Tugend investigates the fear of failure and shame of messing up that pervade American society (though we're not alone); unsurprisingly, the fear starts early and is reinforced often. One of Tugend's recurring themes is that we not only can, but should learn from our mistakes, and chapters discuss major errors from Wall Street, the field of aviation, and the hospital floor, including a famous case of the wrong limb being amputated. These case studies put into perspective our daily errors and illustrate the progress being made in mistake prediction and reduction. And the distinction between "person approach" and "system approach," posited by James Reason in Human Error, is also addressed. While Tugend's study of gender differences in this arena seems to circle the issue without landing anywhere truly interesting, her analysis of saying "I'm sorry" is highly illuminating. Ultimately Tugend succeeds, by stripping mistakes of their power to intimidate and effectively redefining them into malleable, manageable learning tools. (Mar. 17)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1St Edition edition (March 17, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594487855
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594487859
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #739,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Alina Tugend has been a journalist for almost 30 years, and currently writes the biweekly ShortCuts column for the New York Times. She is known for her ability to take complex subjects and explain them in a down-to-earth, often humorous and simple - but never simplistic - manner. Her first book, "Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong" explores the inherent tension between what we are taught as young children - that we must make mistakes in order to learn from them - versus the reality that we often get punished for making mistakes and therefore try to avoid, or cover them up, as much as possible. Most Americans absorb a culture of mistake evasion virtually from birth.
But the cost of such a culture is high. By avoiding errors, we stifle creativity, innovation and the ability to grow and learn in all walks of life. In an effort to deflect blame, we point fingers at our colleagues, our friends, our spouses and our children.
Tugend uses research from a variety of disciplines - medicine, aviation and social science - not only to explain why we hate making and admitting mistakes, but also how to be more accepting of the reality that we all make mistakes and more open to the lessons they have to offer.
Read more about Tugend's book - and access her Times and other articles - at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

68 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Book Fanatic TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I'm the fourth reviewer here and I see the first three all rated this book 5 stars. So let me be the first to offer an alternative opinion. This book had the potential to be really good and I bought it and began reading it with eagerness and high expectations. The subtitle of the book is "The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong". That is a fascinating and important topic that I don't think gets enough airplay. Unfortunately this book doesn't do much to change that situation. It's not what the book was really about and the parts of it that are would have been better covered in a magazine article instead of 250 pages of prose.

For example chapters 4 and 5 were on medical mistakes and aviation mistakes respectively. While the information in them about how those industries deal with mistakes might be interesting, how are either of those relevant to "The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong"? By her own account the aviation industry is incredibly safe and so a whole chapter on how it became safer seems irrelevant to the topic of her book. Is the airline industry "Better by Mistake"?

Chapter 6 is on the topic of gender differences. This chapter was confusing to me. First of all much of it is irrelevant to the topic of her book and just seems to be a way to slip into publication her view that gender differences are exaggerated. She goes on and on about the difference in the way men and women react to mistakes while seeming to want to minimize gender differences. I finished the chapter thinking huh?

Chapter 7 is on cultural differences. It's actually interesting but once again it is tangential to the alleged topic of the book.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By science writer on April 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was amazed to discover that even at age 85, "Better by Mistake" presented insights and advice I had never considered before
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By rlweaverii on August 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

This is an excellent book. Not only is it well-written and well-researched, but the narration flows smoothly, and the research is incorporated easily and unobtrusively.

In seventeen pages in half the font size of the text, she includes a wonderful and quite extensive set of notes. Her bibliography, in the same reduced font size, extends for eleven pages.

Tugend truly knows what she is talking about, and not only does she offer examples with which all readers can identify, whether it is in raising children, in the workplace, medicine, aviation, genders, cultures, or individually, her insights and conclusions are on the mark.

I have used the research (the five dimensions) that Geert Hofstede, the Dutch psychologist, "has done over the years to identify and explain variations among societies" (p. 203), in my textbook, Communicating Effectively, 10th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2012) for many years, and I was pleased to see Tugend's endorsement of them. She said, "Nonetheless [despite his dimensions being "critiqued for failing to take into account minority societies within a dominant culture" (p. 205)], his work has proved very useful, and has withstood the test of time, in helping understand important cultural differences" (p. 205).

His examples of Hofstede's dimensions are clear and helpful, and I plan to use one of them (with permission, of course), as a "Consider This" box or as an "Active Open-Mindedness," or "Another Point of View" supplementary box. That is how good her material is.

I also appreciated Tugend's continual reminders about how we (her readers) can successfully deal with mistakes, or how they can be dealt with in the various areas she writes about.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Ilya Grigorik on April 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover
As another reviewer has already pointed out: a slightly misleading title. The author explores areas such as cultural differences in treating mistakes, gender differences, role of apologies, and so on, but how are we "better by mistake"? Overall, this offers an interesting introduction to the subject area, but it does not offer any new significant insights - many of the examples have been well studied and documented by other writers already. "Inviting Disaster" by James Chiles, "Logic of Failure" by Dietrich Dorner are both good examples. Overall, if you haven't previously explored this field at all (organization failure, disaster, 'normal accidents', etc), then this is a good high-level introduction.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Colannino on December 2, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Better by Mistake" is a book about being wrong and learning from it. The premise is simple. If we learn by mistake, why are we so afraid of being wrong? Tugend explores this fascinating subject in an introduction, eight chapters, and a conclusion: 1) (Mis)Understanding and (Re)Defining Mistakes: What is a mistake? 2) It Starts Early: How our children learn from blunders. 3) "Fail Often, Fast, and Cheap": Mistakes in the workplace. 4) It's Not Brain Surgery. But what if it is?: Learning from medicine. 5) Lessons From the Cockpit: Aviation's approach to errors. 6) Blaming You, Blaming Me: Men, women, and mistakes. 7) You Say Mistake, I Say Lesson: Different cultures, different approaches. 8) I Want to Apologize: Saying "I'm sorry". The book also has acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

This is a unique book and Tugend surveys a panoply of subject matter looking at mistakes from various perspectives including aviation, medicine, and gender. However, despite its rich content, I cannot recommend the book. My disinclination is due primarily to form rather than substance. The books is, well... boring; I had to force myself through nearly every chapter. (By way of full disclosure I should inform the reader that I have written a book on combustion modeling, so this is perhaps the pot calling the kettle black.) The tough slogging was a bit surprising because Tugend is a former newspaper reporter, and one would expect snappy or even Hemingway-esque prose from such an author; alas, that is not the case. It is also possible that I suffer from some of the gender bias in processing information that Tugend describes; shopping is not an journey for me, it is a destination.
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