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.

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