The Fear of Making Mistakes

“You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

I recently had a conversation with a colleague who had some valuable contributions to make, but was afraid to make these contributions because she did not want to make mistakes.

It’s easy to fall into this trap for a couple of reasons:

  • Looking at the confusing and constantly changing laws regarding digital content, the DMCA notices and lawsuits, the risks of accidental plagiarism and the like — it’s not exactly legally and professionally safe to contribute online.
  • Then there’s the risk of other websites completely misquoting your contribution. For an interesting example, read this article by James Taranto and compare it to what the Huffington Post and Think Progress “made” of it. I mean seriously? Taranto wasn’t writing about cases of clear-cut rape — he was writing about sexual encounters that were — at the time — consensual and the double standard regarding responsibility, esp. when alcohol is involved. If nothing else, this is another example to check the original source and not to trust any secondary source with giving you the full “unbiased” picture.
  • There is also the vitriol that can come via comments and other blog postings who find flaws in your research or arguments. A tiny mistake in research can be made public and made more serious than it is. With screenshots it will never go away, even if you delete the post — which, frankly, is bad practice anyway. Better just put a disclaimer in front of it that your opinions have changed based on new information which were not available at the time of writing.
  • And then there’s the overall risk of trolls and other malice online. Below the belt comments or insults are frequent, no matter your gender. And trolls usually try to hit your weak spot. And yup, while you should not take them serious, sometimes that’s hard to do.

Given these risks, it’s no wonder that some people are hesitant to contribute online. But I think that the quotation in the beginning of this posting gives a good reason why it is necessary and rewarding nonetheless. Sure, it can be hard — von Ebner-Eschenbach once said: “The person who speaks in public cannot expect leniency or demand it.” and she was right. But what’s the alternative? Living a life like Tony Campolo described:

“Most people are born and years later die without really having lived at all. They play it safe and tiptoe through life with no aspiration other than to arrive at death safely.”
Tony Campolo, “Carpe Diem”

To live a life of “perpetual inconsequence”, to quote “Dangerous Beauty“?

Personally, I go with Bradbury, although it will take me way beyond forty to reach that fine cutting point.

What about you?