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Why We Make Mistakes

Life's cluster-flux: Not even omniscience could provide the formula for success.

Things didn’t happen as you hoped they would. Why? Did you ignore your intuitions? Did you arrogantly defy fate? Are you just stupid or bad?

Perhaps, but more likely it’s a more universal problem, misunderstood since Socrates.

Socrates argued that we all mean to succeed but that we don’t because we don’t know the formula for living. Throughout Plato’s dialogues, Socrates compares mastering the formula for success to mastering the formula for shoemaking, a useful motivator for trying to do better, but a lousy metaphor since making shoes is a much more controlled enterprise than making a good life.

We learn by trial and error, but learn much faster when trials are similar and errors are clearer. The cobbler’s trials are largely the same from shoe to shoe—same materials, tools and workspace, and his errors are easy to identify—this shoe fell apart; that one didn’t fit.

Life’s not like that. The variables that contribute to your success or failure are innumerable, and your failures are much harder to read. Shoemaking is a game of skill more than luck. But life? More luck than skill.

In summer blockbuster movies, we see heroes solve life problems with a perfect score, applying formulas like the ones Socrates had in mind. But movies, no matter how vivid, aren’t like real life since movies can be written backwards. Like running a maze finish to start, a screenwriter can start with the hero’s ultimate victory, and then make sure that his hero’s “tough choices” lead to it. We don’t get to write our lives backward like that. We can’t tell in advance how things are going to end.

Winners can tell their story finish-to-start, confident that they know the formula that led to their success. We rarely hear from losers who applied the same formulas but weren’t so lucky.

When we fail, we regret, pouring over past events in search of the writing on the wall that we missed, the fate we ignored. We should regret, and anyway we will. Still, it’s best to search in humble appreciation of our inability to pinpoint the lessons of success or failure.

Our inability to pinpoint the lessons becomes obvious when we think about the difference between behavior in physics and life. In classical physics—the physics relevant at life’s level—behavior is reliable, calculatable, consistent. No matter how many times you run a particular experiment, the result is always exactly the same. Physical behavior always involves particular things, this billiard ball or atom hitting that one from a particular angle, yielding the same physical result.

From this, the French philosopher Laplace concluded that with unlimited knowledge and calculating power, a wizard who knew the state of every atom in the universe, and all the physical formulas for their movement could calculate every future state. To Laplace, the universe was a perfectly pre-determined system. Fate was real.

Laplace didn’t notice that life doesn’t work with particulars the way physics does, but with kinds of things, vaguely outlined categories in flux. You stop at red lights, not because particular photons control your braking foot by the determinate laws of physics but by the more ambiguous laws of interpretation. Any of a range of red lights prompts any of a variety of braking actions. The red light braking that saves your life in one situation could get you killed in another.

Even bacteria interpret, working with vaguely outlined categories. A bacterium senses anything resembling sugar and moves toward it. A bacterium’s interpretive response to sugar can be tricked with fake sugars, since they fit the bacterium’s vaguely outlined category of sources of nutrition. The movements toward these substances that keep it alive can also starve it to death. Interpretive behavior makes mistakes. With strictly physical behavior there are no mistakes.

Any of a variety of bold or cautious moves can save or kill you. Any of a variety of interpretations of such vaguely outlined concepts as love and trust can lead to heartbreak or happily-ever-after.

Compound the ambiguities of interpretation across whole populations of living beings and you get the cluster-flux of life, the opposite of fate, a situation that not even Laplace’s wizard can calculate.

Socrates, and countless philosophers and social scientists since have sought a formula for success. The religious think God has that formula already. Defer to him, follow his formula, and you’re destined to succeed. Successes fill the religious with confidence that they have the formula, just as success in business makes the self-certain billionaire confident that he has it.

Taking full credit for your successes is a devil’s bargain because it means you should take full blame for your failures. Better to admit that luck is a big part of the story. For every successful person, there are millions of failures who under different cluster-flux circumstances would have done as well.

When you make mistakes, go easy on yourself. And when you’re victorious, don’t mistake your success for having finally found that formula Socrates sought. Given the cluster-flux, there’s no surefire formula, no way to calculate your way to certain success, no fate, and no way to beat fate.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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