In Search of a Deliberate Error

Still waiting on the laptop to come back from repairs, which means my internet access is largely dependent on an old desktop and the wifi hotspot on my phone. It’s been ten days, which means we’re heading into the outer limits of the time I was quoted. Were I the kind of guy who believed such quotes, I would estimate that I’m back online (and blogging regularly) towards the middle of next week.

Because I know my history with computers, I figure it will be me and the phone for another week or two. at the very least.

Still, one of the advantages of being laptop free is that I’m catching up on a whole bunch of reading. I spend a lot more time with a tablet while the computer is out of commission, which means it’s relatively easy to slip into the Kindle app and catch up on some of the ebooks I accumulate for travel reading. This week’s reading is Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath – a kind of self-help-by-way-of-popular-science book that looks at the psychology of decision making and how to do it better. I kinda wish I’d read it two or three years ago, since a lot of the discussions about decisions that get made in business environments is fascinating and extremely useful in the day-job.

On the writing front, however, the proposition that holds some appeal is the notion of deliberately making mistakes.

The idea that we learn from our mistakes is one of those ingrained pieces of advice that we don’t often question, but the implication there is that there is that the mistakes have come along organically. Decisions were made, mistakes resulted. Time to use it as a teachable moment and figure out what can be learned from that moment.

One of the recurring themes in Decisive is the notion of stress-testing decisions and redefining the parameters that govern the final choice. Part of this lies in questioning default assumptions and received wisdom, playing devil’s advocate to get outside the confirmation bias that tends to creep into any process. A lot of the advice for doing this is a lot less radical than making a deliberate error, but it’s thrown out there as a possibility.

I’ve been brooding on it ever since.

The example they use comes from the business world – and, by the nature of the book, ultimately leads to the company who did it landing a million dollar contract – but the logic behind it is simple. Every industry, organisation, and individual comes to the decision making process with a set of key assumptions and conventional wisdom.  Because it’s generally accepted as useful – stuff that’s designed to keep us from making stupid errors – it never gets tested or explored as an option.

Writing is full of convention wisdom and stupid assumptions. It’s the nature of an industry that treats the business side of things like hedge wizardry and voodoo, with folks picking up details in the form of anecdotal advice and whatever they can glean from the internet. I get irate about a lot of them, from time to time, but the truth is that I operate under just as many assumptions as anyone else. I know, because I sat down and wrote out a big list of them in my journal earlier today.

My assumptions and core rules range from simple stuff like do not write for free all the way through to assumptions about business models through to a set of assumptions about book launches or the promotion of ebooks or the best way to program panels at an literary event. Twenty-odd years around writing in some form or another will leave its makes, and the number of things I assume to be correct because that’s the way things are is considerable. 

When it comes to looking for a deliberate mistake to make, I am spoiled for choice.

It’s an intriguing irony: in order to stress test a process suggested by a book about making better decisions, I need to make a major decision. A lot of the next week will be spent filtering through the list and picking the assumption that I’m least certain about, but has the potential to teach me something interesting even if its confirmed. I’ll endeavour to put the short-list of candidates up here, once I’ve narrowed it down.


  2 comments for “In Search of a Deliberate Error

  1. 17/03/2016 at 9:24 AM

    Thanks for this post today. I’ve been languishing on planning the BIG PROJECT because I was hedging, not knowing where to start BECAUSE I know I’m going to make an error. Well, fuck it. I’m going to make the deliberate mistake of starting in the wrong damn place, because I need to get out into the wilderness so I can start making a map. Thankyou!!

    • 17/03/2016 at 10:24 AM

      And it has just occurred to me that “making a deliberate error” is a pretty solid description of my first drafts.

Leave a Reply