Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet's business partner and most trusted advisor in the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, was once asked what steps he takes to ensure that any business decision he makes is likely to be a sound one.
He replied, "I review my inanities list."
It seems that rather than follow the conventional practice of gathering up examples of the shrewd decisions and best practices that lead to success, Mr. Munger chooses a different route. He identifies the blunders and mistakes made by others and adds them to his file of foolishness.
There are several reasons why adopting a similar practice ourselves may be helpful both at work and at home. One immediate reason is that notable achievements can rarely be attributed to any one factor alone. Success is normally made up of many interlaced components which can make it difficult to identify the decisive action that made all the difference. Not so with mistakes though, where a single error can bring everything tumbling down.
A second reason concerns the persuasive qualities that others' past mistakes and errors has on our own learning. Australian psychologist Wendy Joung has conducted a number of studies to determine whether training programmes that focus on the errors that others have made in the past are more effective than training programmes that focus on how others had made good decisions. The results clearly show that those who undergo 'error-based' training demonstrate much greater improvements in their skills relative to those who undergo an 'error-free' training. Joung suggests that one reason why training that focusses on the mistakes of others is more effective is simply because mistakes, rather than successes, are far more memorable to us.
But it the third feature of others mistakes that perhaps makes them the most attractive of all and that's the fact that they were made by other people. Gaffes made by others make it so much easier for us to recognize them for the blunders that they are. If they were our own, we would have to fight -- often unsuccessfully -- the inclination to persuade ourselves that they weren't mistakes at all, but instances of bad luck, unfortunate timing or some other factor outside our control. But the outward-directed character of others prior lapses allows us to dodge the ego-puncturing nature of our own.
As a result not only is there much to be gained from listing the mistakes of others, somewhat perversely, they might even serve to make us feel better about ourselves too.
New York Times bestselling author Steve Martin's new book THE SMALL BIG - small changes that spark BIG influence co-authored with Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini is out now.