Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

What's Your Favorite Mistake?

Screwing up is painful, but our errors can make us better people

After my wife's first month as an art director of a magazine, she signed off on her first cover. It was a major professional milestone, and a proud achievement - a gorgeous piece of work, as I can attest. She sent the image to the production team, who signed off on it as well, and passed it along to the printing plant. Only after the 100,000 copies of the magazine had left the printing press was the error recognized: my wife and the production had all forgotten to include a bar-scan code on the cover. Without it, vendors couldn't sell the magazine. The distributors refused to send it out. Virtually the entire print run had to be pulped.

What my wife and her team had suffered from was a failure of prospective memory - the inability to keep in mind every aspect of a goal that one sets for oneself. If you've ever walked out the door in the morning and realized you've left your work papers on the kitchen counter, you've suffered a failure of prospective memory. This type of mistake is all the more vexing for being so common and seemingly avoidable. I've never felt so flat-out dumb as I did the day I locked my car keys inside the car. I'll never forget that horrible feeling of shame, seeping over me like hot acid, as I realized that with a shove of the car door I'd done something that could not easily be undone.

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And it's a good thing I'll never forget. Mistakes are things that we learn from. I've never locked my keys in the car since. And my wife has never sent off a cover that's missing a crucial element. From that day on, the company instituted a procedure that demanded that staff run through a written check list at every critical phase of production.

Right now I'm working on an article about mistakes, and why we make them, and I'd love to include lots of vivid mistakes from all walks of life. Do you have a favorite mistake? That is, not to say one that you'd care to repeat anytime soon, but that has been burned so deeply in your memory that you'll never repeat it? I'm not just looking for failures of prospective memory, but any screwup that's left you feeling hot-faced with shame: a bad judgment call, a missed opportunity, an attempt to show off that ended badly. If so, please drop me a line, either here or on my Facebook page, or post it in a comment. You can be anonymous if you like!

 

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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