An interactive and taboo-free journalism based in Japan

Welcome to TokyoFreePress Thursday, March 23 2017 @ 11:12 PM JST

The Smart Way of Making Mistakes

Soren Kierkegaard, who is
often labeled a Christian
existentialist, was the first
to have advocated smart

Mistake - NOUN:
1. An error or fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness
2. A misconception or misunderstanding
- The American Heritage Dictionary

People say, "Everybody makes mistakes." But I have made too many mistakes in my 74-year life to find consolation in the banal statement.

Thus far, however, I haven't raped, robbed, or murdered anyone. But since the AHD clearly distinguishes criminal acts from mistakes, the absence of criminal records doesn't make any difference to the fact that I am extremely error-prone. To me this is something very hard to accept because I have sometimes suffered a prohibitively costly consequence from these missteps.

On the other hand, if one means to say by this notion that everybody commits a crime or two at times, he is just admitting the society where he lives has already fallen apart.

To differentiate mistakes from wrongdoings more clearly, I think we should shed new light on man's innate proneness to errors. My way of doing that would be like this:

"Everybody is entitled or even encouraged to make a mistake on the premise that it is a result of taking a calculated risk. No matter whether his action turns out a failure due to 'defective judgment' or 'deficient knowledge,' that is the only way he can learn lessons from life."

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is one of the favorite thinkers of American businessmen because his words, when wrenched out of the total context, often seem to fit very well into actual business situation. I have heard dozen times American executives quote, or requote to be more precise, Kierkegaard's words.

A retired businessman by the name of G. Kingsley Ward, for one, wrote in his small book titled Letters of a Businessman to His Daughter:

"And in all likelihood, they would all concur with Soren Kierkegaard's observations that, 'Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.'"

Obviously Ward had been too busy to double-check the unabridged text of a 1843 entry in Kierkegaard's diary, which actually goes like this:

"It is quite true what Philosophy says: that Life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying: that it must be lived - forwards. The more one ponders this, the more it comes to mean that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible, precisely because at no moment can I find complete quiet to take the backward-looking position." (English translation by Peter P. Rohde)

Later in his life, Kierkegaard dilated on this dilemma to the effect that life would be much ado about nothing if there weren't a guiding light. To him it was his faith in God, but to an atheist like me, it's intuition constantly being reinforced by experience of failure. If your intuitive faculty and learning ability have been damaged in one way or the other, you are sunk.

Ward's compatriots find this passage particularly (re)quotable especially when they just want to say, "Let's go ahead with our plan although there still are risk factors involved in it." Although Kierkegaard's thoughts have a little more profound implication than an American businessman would find in them, they think the citation will make their message more convincing to their colleagues.

I know American people, in general, are the world's second poorest thinkers, only next to the Japanese, especially when it comes to abstract thinking. Yet I suspect Ward might have been able to tell his daughter how to make smart mistakes if he had bothered to read the entire text of the particular entry in Kierkegaard's diary, and preferably yet, some other pieces in the same journal, as well.

Once upon a time, the American society was accommodative of risk-taking individuals, especially when they were smart enough to run calculated risks. In those days the people didn't even need the ability for abstract thinking. Contextual thinking would always suffice. I think this climate was the real reason behind their resilience and self-purification ability.

But everything has changed there since four or so decades ago. The only thing the Americans have learned in the meantime is how to avoid risks. As a result, their nation has now turned into a paradise for professional second-guessers. Obama's approval rating keeps dwindling as if the Americans weren't deifying him less than one year ago. But to those Monday morning quarterbacks, it's always someone else's problem, not their own. The only thing that brings some consolation to them is the fact that the situation in Japan is even worse.

As I reported in my October 17 post, Yoshiro Takeuchi, who some consider is one of the top-notch thinkers in Japan, refused to have a one-on-one debate with me on the pretext that my way of viewing the U.S. president and Japan's prime minister is totally unacceptable. Not once has he said that I am an extremely arrogant person to prejudge that neither Obama nor Hatoyama can deliver anything on their empty promises.

To Takeuchi and other learning-disabled people on both sides of the Pacific, it's too soon to evaluate their leaders. Most probably, however, they will start grumbling about their poor performances in a matter of 2, 3 years from now. Then, it's my turn to say, "It's too late now."

Recently the Los Angeles Times published an interesting article titled The Twilight of Pax Americana. Its co-authors, Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz wrote: "[The decline of America's supremacy] reminds us that changes in the global balance of power can be sudden and discontinuous rather than gradual and evolutionary."

In the face of the quickening change in the global balance of power and the accelerated erosion of value system everywhere, inaction on the pretext that we should know our leaders more precisely before taking actions can cost us our future. At least you can substitute your intuition for further examination that may or may not confirm your take on them today. Let's not pretend that the deeper we analyze Obama's words and deeds, or Hatoyama's, the smarter we get.

History has proved time and again that avoidance of a smart mistake often leads to a fatal one which is otherwise avoidable.

Tags: 哲学者, 竹内芳郎, 反天皇教, カルト, 教祖, オバマ, 鳩山由紀夫, キルケゴール ·

Story Options


Trackback URL for this entry:

No trackback comments for this entry.
The Smart Way of Making Mistakes | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
The Only Smart Way of Making Mistakes
Authored by: samwidge on Wednesday, October 21 2009 @ 08:37 AM JST

You have covered a lot of turf in this thoughtful piece. I can only address a small portion of it because my own life experiences are more limited.

In science, we consider mistakes to be the miner's gold nuggets.Thomas Edison had the money and the help to make hundreds of thousands of deliberate mistakes and to save those that provided good results. His peer, Nikola Tesla, was more direct and thought out his attempts at invention carefully before investing time and material. Nonetheless, his mind was filled with a vast catalog of valuable mistakes.

The transistor is one of the most fascinating of human mistakes in that a theory was brought forward and a device constructed. The device worked but it worked differently from predictions. From mistakes that theory was disproved, a new theory developed and a new device made. That second device worked well but the theory was wrong, another useful mistake. Improvement came from mistakes, not careful design.

You speak of Yoshiro Takeuchi, a man you admired deeply until you found that his mind had started to fail and that he had become offensive. Throwing him away may also be a mistake. In doing so, we might now become incapable of learning from the things he did right. My recommendation is to keep Mr. Takeuchi happily in your mind though there is no reason to rush out and buy him a beer.

America made the greatest mistake in all its history with the election of Obama. Already we suffer. The rest of the world is starting to suffer, too, with the loss of our capitalistic endeavors that feed and clothe the masses and create schools for their children.

Other peoples will have to stop trying to sneak in to our country illegally. Instead they must make their own homes hospitable places for harvest, research and innovation. They have no other way. Many will suffer and die. There will be wars, famine and pestilence... but those things were happening anyway.

I am sure that Soren Kierkegaard was a great man though he made the giant mistake of being boring. I feel that you and I contribute more greatly and benefit more people because we genuinely want people to understand and to care. We want them to value and use everybody's mistakes.

Mistakes. They are the only thing we do well.
The Only Smart Way of Making Mistakes
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Wednesday, October 21 2009 @ 12:09 PM JST


You wrote, "I can only address a small portion of it." But in fact you are talking about the two most intriguing types of mistakes which I overlooked in this piece - deliberate mistakes and something to be called serendipity rather than smart mistakes. Some say such incidents happen by accident, but I believe they are more like omens.

Actually I have been interested in these subjects so much that I may discuss them in a separate piece in the near future.

As to the Takeuchi affair, I don't think parting ways with the philosopher is a mistake. Rather, I was mistaken when I was idolizing him.

At any rate I always appreciate your comments because you can shed light on topics I take up from unexpectedly new angles. Please keep them coming.

Yu Yamamoto