cover image Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong

Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong

Alina Tugend. Riverhead, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59448-785-9

In her absorbing first book, veteran journalist Tugend confronts a common but complicated subject: making mistakes. Beginning with two universal truths%E2%80%94people are not perfect and mistakes happen%E2%80%94the author first defines her subject as separate from "error" and in consideration of its outcome (mistakes have led to countless scientific advances, for instance). Tugend investigates the fear of failure and shame of messing up that pervade American society (though we're not alone); unsurprisingly, the fear starts early and is reinforced often. One of Tugend's recurring themes is that we not only can, but should learn from our mistakes, and chapters discuss major errors from Wall Street, the field of aviation, and the hospital floor, including a famous case of the wrong limb being amputated. These case studies put into perspective our daily errors and illustrate the progress being made in mistake prediction and reduction. And the distinction between "person approach" and "system approach," posited by James Reason in Human Error, is also addressed. While Tugend's study of gender differences in this arena seems to circle the issue without landing anywhere truly interesting, her analysis of saying "I'm sorry" is highly illuminating. Ultimately Tugend succeeds, by stripping mistakes of their power to intimidate and effectively redefining them into malleable, manageable learning tools. (Mar. 17)