Monday, 24 February 2014

Making Mistakes

Shorter post today. Enjoy.

Making Mistakes

"A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."
          James Joyce, Ulysses

George Orwell states in Nineteen Eighty-Four that “the best way to keep a secret is to hide it from oneself.” Which is bollocks, right? The best way to hide a secret, as we all know, is to write that secret down, leave it on the mantelpiece or coffee table, go for a piss and then come back and try and find it.

It can’t be done, because the mind is as mischievous as it is treacherous and so replaces the memory of the thing searched for with some unpleasant image, like a large tax bill or a picture of Boris Johnson in just his pants and socks, and so we skip over the form of the desired object time and time again, even when it is starting us in the face.

This works well for drug dealers or spies. Keep a list of your contacts in a little black book in plain view on the sideboard. Saves you having to remember anything incriminating. Then when the police or intelligence services break the door down demanding names, all you have to is get them to help you look for the book. Bingo! They are quickly co-opted into a shared sense of blindness for the thing searched for and desired.

I’m being factious of course (it’s a skill), but it’s a source a continual fascination to me the way the mind works or doesn’t work. We all make mistakes, it is after all the way that evolution works, through errors in the duplication process copying strands of genetic material. Some errors are beneficial to progress, others disastrous. One of the greatest errors in the public’s perception of science is in misunderstanding the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’. It doesn’t mean the fittest in the sense of the most well-toned, or even the sexiest (there’s that factiousness again), but in the sense of the most well suited to survive in an ever changing environment. Today you may be top of the food chain, the savviest with current technology, the richest economy, but who knows what next week will bring. Adaption is as much about serendipity and making mistakes as it is about forward planning. Without mistakes, we’d all still be a pool of slime under a rock somewhere.

One of my greatest weaknesses is my ability to proofread my own work. I still find typos in posts on this blog that I wrote five years ago or more. It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t survive long in banking (aside from the danger to my mortal soul). Banks externalise all mistakes to their own staff, the public, the public purse, anyone but themselves. The kind of errors that in the public sector or less carcinogenic elements of the private sector would simply be regarded as part of human nature, in banking are instead treated like the worst crimes imaginable. It’s the principle of judging others by your own standards. Put the date in the wrong format, miss out the county on an address, call someone Ms instead of Miss and you’ll be treated like you were the one who mis-sold the PPI policy in the first place. By laying the blame for mistakes squarely at the feet of their own staff, banks leave much to chance and it’s no surprise they are still screwing people over and engaging in toxic practices, even to this day.

I jumped before I was pushed, but I’m glad I jumped when I did. As a writer, it was a useful experience and I gained some valuable insights, but only in the same way as I would if I’d spent a year with the Taliban. Yet I factiously comfort myself with the knowledge that my ability to make simple mistakes does at least single me out as a powerhouse of evolution. Get things spot on 100% of the time and you may have a glittering career in banking ahead of you, but it’s also probably best if you don’t breed at any point. You’d only be diluting the gene pool.

People will sometimes offer up a prayer to St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, when looking for something they’ve misplaced. As an atheist it is all too easy to deride this type of behaviour, because no matter what we atheists might like to think, atheism is a cult, filled with its own unique set of prejudices just like any other religion. Scientifically speaking, the appeal to an external power definitely does work, not because St Anthony or God necessarily exist, but simply because the process removes ownership of the problem from the domain of the mischievous mind to some unseen third person. Like with banking, externalise the problem and it ceases to be your concern and you’ll soon find you find your watch/wallet/car keys/phone.

It’s the same as when people say, “Look for something else, you’ll soon find it.” Drug dealers and spies, be aware that you should under no circumstances offer your unwelcome guests tea or coffee, or ask them for any assistance in the kitchen. One quick fumble through kitchen cupboards looking for the sugar is enough to dissolve the cloak of invisibility surrounding that little black book on the sideboard quicker than you can say one lump or two.

I don’t really have an ending for this piece, so instead I will close by saying that the writer has made eight deliberate mistakes. Can you spot them all?

Get it done.

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