The Smart Way of Making Mistakes

Wednesday, October 21 2009 @ 01:18 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto


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

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

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