Which type of error do you like making the most?

Paul Casselle 23rd February 2016

When it comes to making mistakes, I am a master. But it has been said that there is a difference between a mistake and an error. A mistake is when we either accidentally get it wrong or when, with hindsight, we can see we didn’t make the best choice.

Errors are a whole other kettle-o-fish. Errors, in this sense, are a failure to correct a mistake. Errors are about not taking responsibility for a mistake. It compounds the wrong we may have done and leads us down a dark path rather than carving a trail to something more caring and enlightening.

I once lived with a girlfriend who, one day, came upstairs to the spare bedroom where I was working, retrieved whatever she was looking for, then left the room. As she exited she turned the light off leaving me in the dark. By the time I had reacted she was halfway down the stairs. I called out to her.

“Hey! I’m in here!”

She called up the stairs.

“Sorry.”

But continued on her way. She had made a mistake, but by choosing not to rectify that mistake, and coming back upstairs to turn the light on, compounded it into an error. I use this story all the time to check out if I am taking responsibility for my mistakes, and doing all I can to rectify them, or am selfishly leaving people in the dark.

There is another way to look at errors. In animal behaviour there are two types of error; type 1 and type 2. A type 1 error is a false positive, and a type 2 error is a false negative.

Imagine you are a foraging animal in the jungle. You hear a rustle in the trees. Well, that might be a predator or it might simply be the wind. Your choice is now between type 1 or type 2. If you choose type 1; false positive, you are believing that the noise is simply the wind. But if you are wrong, you get eaten – game over. If you choose type 2; false negative, you believe a fierce lion is about to jump your bones, and you leave your yummy food to make a run for it. In this second case, at worst you have lost your lunch, but if you were right…you may have lost your lunch, but you have avoided becoming someone else’s midday snack.

Getting this right is obviously critical. Type 1 is very energy efficient, but you risk being eaten. Type 2 is much less frugal, but much safer.

I’ll leave you with a re-telling of a wonderful story from the late, great Max Miller. He tells of a farmer that needs to harvest his crop, and in spite all of his best efforts, his tractor has broken down. He knows that his neighbour has already harvested his crops so has a tractor lying idle. ‘Maybe,’ he thinks, ‘my neighbour will lend me his tractor.’

The farmer starts the long walk over to his neighbour’s farm. On the way he starts thinking.

“My neighbour’s a bit of a misery-guts. He’s always moaning about other people; how they don’t stand on their own two feet. How they always expect others to help them. And how proud he is of himself for taking care of things. How he talks of working hard to get a job done rather than sneaking off to the pub and simply hoping for some divine intervention.” He continues walking and thinking. “Self-righteous old bastard,” he thinks. “I suppose he’s going to judge me as someone that doesn’t take care of my tractor. Someone that lies in bed all day and leaves harvesting to the last moment!”

By the time he gets to the neighbouring farmer’s house he has worked himself up into a complete lather. He knocks on the door, and his neighbour answers with a big friendly smile on his face. Before the neighbour can say a single word, the first farmer screams.

“And you can stick your poxy tractor right up your arse!” and stomps away.

It’s all about choices. What will you choose today?