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Alina Tugend: Better by Mistake

One of my favorite sayings (maybe because I created it!), is "Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn." The idea is that winning feels good, but often doesn't lead to any learning. Growth is usually only reserved when things go wrong. That's the idea behind a new book called Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong by Alina Tugend. Alina writes the popular and wildly insightful New York Times column, ShortCuts . I had the pleasure of having an hour-long conversation with her where she discussed the latest research and how we really can be better from our mistakes.

Here is a short transcript from our conversation about the dangers of being an expert. You'll definitely want to listen to the full Alina Tugend Richer Life Insights interview of this fascinating topic.

Robert: What happens when you become an expert at something? All of a sudden, you don't think you can make a mistake, right?

Alina: I think that's absolutely right. And I think that that's a real shame because, you know, as the experts, I've talked about how experts, you know, (using the word experts) the academics, the researchers I've talked to talked about that's a real problem. When we start feeling like we have a certain area of confidence and we better protect it and we can't move out of it. I think that's, you know, that's a real problem. And my favorite, one of my favorite examples in the book is, you know, I write about culture. And that was one of the things that as you know I talk about and compare primarily: Asian and American and Canadian cultures in terms of our approach to mistakes. And the North American way, it's a whole cultural concept which is very different than Asians. And one of my favorite anecdotes in Asian culture is that, in Japan is that there was a survey on the favorite word, or the favorite words. And a national survey said effort and persistence were two of the most favorite words in Japanese culture. And this whole idea that that outweighs results. You know, I say, I think that in America it would be effortless. And I think it's why I like doing the culture chapter so much, is that it really showed us a different way we can look at this. We don't have to look at it the same old way.

Robert: If the Asian culture is really more about effort and persistence and progress and the American culture is really more about results and sort of that fixed mindset, how do you think that's going to play out with the economy and innovation going forward?

Alina: I've got to say that's a tough question because, you know, as I say no culture has a monopoly on being right. And I think there are aspects (as people say), there are aspects of our culture that people love, such as, you know, that you sort of can get second and third chances and that's not so true in other cultures. So I think I'd have to defer that to, I think I'd be afraid to make any predictions based on that. But I think what we do see is that especially in early education in Japan (and that's what I talk about a lot), we could learn so much about how they're willing to learn from mistakes and how they're willing. What I found so fascinating is that pre-schools and early education children can make a mistake, and the teacher will call them to the board, and they'll make the mistake, and here in America the teacher would be much more likely to go, "Oh, don't worry," try not to embarrass the child, try not to make it anything humiliating, quickly correct the child. In Japan, that's not the case. In Japan, the mistake will be played out on the board, sometimes it can go on for 10 or 12 minutes, because the ideas is not is this the correct answer? They'll ask the other students who've made the same, you know, mistake as Yoshi (10-15 kids might raise their hand). The teacher will then go over, let's say it's math and you're multiplying denominators when you shouldn't be in fractions. They won't just say, "No that's wrong." They'll keep looking at the mistake, because for them the mistake is not just a mistake. It's a way that's partially correct and they want to see the children understand the process, not just the end answer. I think that's what we are kind of missing in our culture is we tend to rush to see what's right and what's wrong, not how did I get to this point?

If you want to learn and grow, check out Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong and be sure to listen to the full Alina Tugend Richer Life Insights interview.

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