The Philosopher's Cornered
Issue 9

Fool Me Thrice...
by Dan Wolaver

     My son and I were about to haul some chunks of concrete around, so I slipped off my wedding ring and put it in my pocket.  "Hey, that's thinking ahead," my son said, "I scratched up my ring last time I was handling rocks."  "I scratched up my ring twice before I learned to take it off," I told him.
     Why twice?  You'd think I would have learned the first time.  Well, the first time I thought I just wasn't being careful enough, and I buffed out the scratches.  It took the second scratching of the ring to realize that being careful wasn't enough; I had to remove it.
     We often have to make a mistake twice to realize what's going on.  A pickpocket will jostle you in a crowd to take your wallet.  Later that day you'll wonder where you lost your wallet—maybe on a store counter while getting your credit card out.  The next time you're jostled and you wallet goes missing, you put the two together and realize you've been pickpocketed again.  The third time you're in the crowd you keep your wallet in your shirt, and you grab the guy's hand in your hip pocket when you're jostled.  So, fool me once—I don't know I've been fooled.  Fool me twice, shame on you.  Fool me thrice, shame on me!
     Do we have to make a mistake twice—or even once—to learn something?  I would tell my electrical engineering students to always put bypass capacitors on their power supply; otherwise the circuit will oscillate.  They wrote that rule down in their notes.  But in the lab I found that none of the students remembered the rule, and their circuits went into oscillation.  Then they understood!  The next time they all bypassed the power supply.  So teaching doesn't keep students from making mistakes, but at least it can keep them from making the same mistake twice. 
     With enough experience the number of mistakes goes down.  You get more confident because you've done a lot of things and seen just about everything that can go wrong.  Even new things are sometimes similar to old experiences, and you can anticipate problems.  So it would seem like eventually you don't have to make mistakes even once anymore.  But that would mean you aren't having really new experiences anymore, and that's rather a dead-end condition.
     My dentist has years of experience, and I've found he does almost everything right the first time.  Once he ran into a situation in anchoring a crown he hadn't run into before.  He said, "You know, I going to try something new here."  Well, the crown fell off, and he had to redo the work at his own expense.  "It's OK," he said, "It's just part of my tuition."
     So don't be afraid of trying something new and failing.  That's par for the course, and that's learning, and that's living.
     And that's my philosophy.

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