• 02.20.13

Debug Yourself: Rethinking Mistakes And How They Affect Your Work

A new way to think about mistakes will both help you stop making them, and change the way you feel about them.

Debug Yourself: Rethinking Mistakes And How They Affect Your Work

When LiveJournal user celandine13 made mistakes during piano practice, her teacher would help her debug the error of her ways:


He never seem to judge me for my mistakes. Instead, he’d try to fix them with me: repeating a three-note phrase, differently each time, trying to get me to unlearn a hand position or habitual movement pattern that was systematically sending my fingers to wrong notes.

What she unpacks from that finding–that wrong notes have a discrete cause, rather than from being bad at piano–has impacts for anyone who wants to improve their skills or help someone to improve theirs.

Back to the keyboard: Since before playing a wrong note your fingers are in the position that guarantees a wrong note, fixing them isn’t a matter of “practicing harder,” but rather “trying to unkink those systematically error-causing fingerings and hand motions.” With that being the case, she can tap into that “telekinesis” to carefully unlearn mistake-making patterns–a process of debugging.

The author contrasts the “error model” of performance with the “bug model.” In the error model, your performance on a piece of music or a test is thought of as a perfect performance with randomness errors. With that conception, improvement means lowering your error rate. (Sound familiar?) And with this model, your performance is graded by your accuracy.

Then there’s the bug model: When you’re taking a test you’re executing a program. Since the program is deterministic, a bug will create consistent errors across a class of problems. As such, a percentage doesn’t really capture the accuracy of a program; fixing a tiny bug can turn everything being wrong to everything being right. The key, then, is to isolate the bug.

“Once you start to think of mistakes as deterministic rather than random, as caused by “bugs” (incorrect understanding or incorrect procedures) rather than random inaccuracy, a curious thing happens,” she writes. “You stop thinking of people as ‘stupid.'”

Instead of being bad at math, a child has something missing in his understanding; his mental model (or program) doesn’t match up with the reality. The lesson extends to people who want to improve their skills (and their careers): Rather than “getting better” at coding or sales or whatever, you can go seek out the bugs that you’ve got rattling around.

It’s the stuff of deliberate practiceone of the best skills you can learn to get better at getting better.


[Image: Flickr user Scallop Holden]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.