Monday, May 11, 2009

Life Isn't One Thing After the Other...

It is, as I believe Gertrude Stein once said, the same damn thing over and over again.

This is true of mistakes as well. It’s not so much the new mistake that bothers us. What drives us crazy is that we make the same mistake over and over again.

Why? The answer has to do with feedback.

What’s feedback? Basically, it’s a signal. Feedback sends back to the user (that's us) information about what action has been done and what result has been accomplished.

Feedback is a well-known concept in the science of information and control theory; it’s why phones have dial tones and make those little beeps when you push the buttons – the feedback lets us know whether we’ve done something correctly.

But in real life, feedback isn’t always as clear as a dial tone. Often, we distort feedback because we don’t like the signal we get. Instead, we tell ourselves little white lies.

A good example involves failing to lose weight. Say the first of the year rolls around and you resolve, once again, to get in shape. So you join a gym and pay up for an annual membership. But (and research has shown this) you will probably end up going to the gym only about half as often as you expect you’ll go.

Result: at the end of the year you still won’t be in shape – and you will have overpaid for you gym membership. So you will have made two mistakes instead of one.


Maybe you can’t bear to admit to yourself the truth: that you really are the undisciplined, lazy, slob your third-ex-boyfriend-in-a-year said you were. Because if he was right about that, then maybe he was right about all those other things he said. And if he was right about all those things then that means even more years in therapy. And you just finished paying off the therapist’s bills – which is why you had the money to join the gym in the first place.

So what do you do? You alter the feedback. You tell yourself a little white lie: “I didn’t go to the gym because I had to finish those projects at work.” Or, “I didn’t go because I had to take care of the kids.”

In any event, you tell yourself something more palatable. But when New Year’s rolls around next year, you set yourself up for the same mistake -- because you haven’t been honest about the cause in the first place.


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