24 September 2014

Being bigger than your mistakes

A lot of academics worry about making mistakes.

Given that academics work in a reputation economy, it’s right to be concerned about mistakes that could damage your reputation. Many academics try to do this by being extremely careful and not make mistakes in the first place, but being in research pretty much ensures that you will be making mistakes. A lot of them.

A better approach is to do the legwork to establish an identity and reputation for yourself before a major mistake hits.

I think it’s pretty widely agreed that this was a mistake.

The Motola Rokr was Apple’s first effort at merging their successful iTunes product with a phone. It didn’t take off. But this mistake was not fatal, and they did a much better job with the iPhone some years later.

Apple, as a brand, was bigger than it’s mistakes.

Bill Clinton recovered from a scandal, perhaps in part because he had established a brand for himself before the scandal broke. Monica Lewinsky had no brand, and has never really recovered from it.

In science, the journals Science and Nature have both been involved in multiple embarrassing mistakes, from problem covers to to Zune journals to papers being published over peer reviews that didn’t support publication... but none of those mistakes seem to matter. They have barely made a dent in the journal, and they roll on regardless.

It’s easier for institutions to do this than individuals. But it’s not impossible for people to do this.

This is one of the reasons I’m such an advocate of building your online identity: with a website, a blog, social media. It’s a way that you can build a personal brand so that when you make a mistake (and you probably will), you can move past it.


syed said...

Overall Apple is just for Personality development..

Artem Kaznatcheev said...

I think the quote that "the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried" is particularly relevant to this. I also think that the popular focus on Truth over Process, and end results over their means, is one of the things that make failure so difficult for us.

We should aim on praising productive participation, regardless of if the participant contributed by defending the stance we eventually believe to be true, or by defending the stance we eventually believe to be false but nudging those on the other side to develop their position. Of course, to some extent that moves the buck around from identifying truth to identifying useful contributions, since there are definitely ways to participate in debates with no useful or even a negative contribution.

Unfortunately, we tend to forget even the important interlocutors in our telling of history. Thony Christie has a particularly great post on this: Science grows on the fertilizer of disagreement.