Bad Judgment


There is a famous story of a rich old man being interviewed by a young striver, who asks him for the secret of his success.  “Good judgment,” says the magnate.

His eager young follower dutifully scribbles this down, then looks at him expectantly. “And how do you get good judgment?”

“Experience!” says our terse tycoon.

“And how do you get experience?”

“Bad judgment!”

-Megan McArdle, The Up Side of Down

I tend to avoid experience– because I don’t want to make mistakes. McArdle writes about good students who grow up feeling that success meant doing things that come easily. I was that student. I was naturally good at reading and avoided music and sports. Only now am I learning the value in trying to master something that doesn’t come easily– entrepreneurship. The secret seems to be, “Just Do It” and figure out if it was the right thing to do later. I’m hoping this approach will get better results than my current strategy of sit and do nothing until I figure out the right thing to do (spoiler alert: there is no “right thing” to do).

This book is so rich, I could pull a quote from every page. Really, she touches on everything that matters: love, unemployment, video games, 9/11 Truthers, buying a home, etc.

McArdle concludes her book with a chapter on Forgiveness. She makes the argument that when we have a culture that gives people the freedom to make mistakes, they will thrive. Even when they don’t thrive, that culture of forgiveness costs less than insisting that people pay for their mistakes. She uses the specific example of programs that help the homeless by renting apartments for them, without requiring clean drug tests or a job. Even when the beneficiary doesn’t quit drugs, that program costs less than the hospital and prison stays that otherwise would happen.

The key is to practice bad judgment early in life, when mistakes don’t cost so much. Or to anticipate the worst outcome and be ready for it (ideally, with an 8-month emergency fund). And when you do make a mistake, it’s better to stop your course of action ASAP.

Most of us can look back at some moment of crisis and realize that this is when life, after years of send us more-or-less polite cease-and-desist notices, finally punched us square in the face as if to say, ‘I’m not kidding around! Cut it out, you stupid moron!’

McArdle is very adamant that you will never learn to like failure. It sucks and it will always suck. But we still need to learn how to fail better. It doesn’t mean that there’s some clear lesson in every failure, or that you should try again. Maybe it means that failure does not define you as a person (neither does success). Once we let go of defining ourselves by success or failure, we can get on with doing useful things.




If you have not read Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre, go read them both right now (maybe read Jane Eyre first) and then come back.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a strange book. I’m having a hard time understanding the bare bones of the story line. And then this:

‘If my father, my real father, was alive you wouldn’t come back here in a hurry after he’d finished with you. If he was alive. Do you know what you’ve done to me? It’s not the girl, not the girl. But I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate. I used to think that if everything else went out of my life I would still have this, and now you have spoilt it. It’s just somewhere else where I have been unhappy, and all the other things are nothing to what has happened here. I hate it now like I hate you and before I die I will show you how much I hate you.’

Something about this speech from Antoinette was very, very familiar. I know this feeling, that you have let someone into your precious, sacred space and then he breaks it and breaks you, and what used to comfort you just reminds you of pain and your own stupidity and you feel like you can never trust that sense of security again.

I didn’t want to read this book because I didn’t want my opinion of Mr. Rochester to change. When I read Jane Eyre in high school, and many times after that, I saw a hero. That’s what the man is in the story, right? He’s a hero, which means he can’t be cruel or thoughtless or selfish. Of course, in the story, Rochester calls himself cruel and selfish, but I was too young to understand that Charlotte Bronte was writing an antihero. I didn’t know enough stories for the true definition of hero, so I assumed Rochester was one.

Wide Sargasso Sea does not paint him as a villain– not completely. When Rochester was the narrator, it seemed he was just as crazy as his wife. How could a person stay sane when forced to marry a stranger to preserve the dignity of one’s distant relatives?

The right to be wrong

hogfather-3 So Austin has had some unseasonably gorgeous weather. It actually feels like autumn! So I’ve been adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to my coffee and reading Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.

The book is about belief.

Terry Pratchett always talks about the common people and how they are an immovable sludge that keep doing what they do despite the best efforts of the educated and the heroic. He always does it with a sort of awe and love for those people, because even as he points out their intractableness, he criticizes the main characters for thinking they can make a difference.

Here’s a footnote on Ponder Stibbons, the character who represents comp-sci nerdom:

Credulous: having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.

Ponder Stibbons is smart enough to hold himself above the “credulous” masses, but not quite smart enough to recognize the mystery in the physics that he studies.

Here’s another statement reflecting the perspective of the credulous:

The universe clearly operates for the benefit of humanity. This can be readily seen from the convenient way the sun comes up in the morning, when people are ready to start the day.

This attitude has definitely shaped the way I approach my work as a political activist. I’ve been reading Discworld novels since middle school, so, of course, Pratchett has shaped my understanding of the world. So while there are amazing characters who cannot be constrained by mediocrity (like Granny Weatherwax and Susan Death) those characters must protect the people who reject them (and whom they reject). Because you have to allow people to be stubborn or wrong-headed or just plain stupid. Because if you don’t, you become the villain. You become the person who controls others to get what you want. And that’s evil.