Presidential Conference: Learning from Mistakes on the way to Tomorrow

Sunday, June 24, 2012 11:36 AM

Are we able to admit our mistakes and correct them, or are we good only at identifying the mistakes of others?

 
Do we really learn from our mistakes? How can we make fewer mistakes and navigate our lives more wisely and justly? Are we able to admit our mistakes and correct them, or are we good only at identifying the mistakes of others?
 
These questions, among others, were discussed at the Presidential Conference, at a session entitled Learning from Mistakes on the Way to Tomorrow, chaired by journalist and jurist Dana Weiss. She quoted Winston Churchill, who said, “All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.”
 

President Peres addresses audience. Photo: Yoav Devir
 
Decisions are Gambles
 
Prof. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate for economics, said that in order to learn from our mistakes, feedback must be swift and clear, “but the world is not built that way,” he said. “Decisions are gambles. Good decisions sometimes lead to bad results, and vice versa. In such a world it is hard to learn from mistakes.”
 
He explained that the world is an uncertain and unpredictable place. For example, stock investments and political forecasting are impossible to predict. “Choosing a stock is like flipping a coin. If you toss it enough times, you will in some cases get consecutive successes. Likewise militarily, a general that takes risks and succeeds several times will be considered a genius. The others will be considered cowards. It is hard for us to admit that there is a dimension of the unknown and the uncertain in this world. Is there an alternative to judging the world according to results?” asked Kahneman. “It is better to judge according to the process of decision making and not only according to the outcome," he explained. "In order to learn our lessons from mistaken decision making processes, we must track the process.”
 
Mistakes in Health Issues
 
Dr. David Agus, cancer research scientist and Director of the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine at the University of Southern California, spoke about mistakes in the field of health. He said that in the 1970s, the medical world recommended using margarine instead of butter, and, as a result, 2.8 million people died too soon.
“We exercise for an hour, and then we sit for hours by the computer, which, as far as health, is like smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes. The key to good health is to get up and move around in the daytime. A woman who takes multivitamins is increasing her risk of death by 15%. You are allowed to smoke, and you are allowed to take vitamins, but there is a price to pay.”
 
He said that it is almost impossible to understand the complex system of the human body, but one can control it. When I ask my son how to stop a train, he says, ‘You step on the brakes.’ He doesn’t ask how fast the train is going or in what direction.” The way to learn from and avoid medical mistakes, according to Dr. Agus, is to “begin collecting data. That way we will be able to learn from every experience. Things will change if we begin to act, and all of us will benefit from it.”
 
Classic Mistakes in Negotiations
 
Professor James Sebenius, from the Harvard University School for Business Administration, who is an expert in conducting negotiations, began with a story about a man who had to conduct negotiations with a Chinese associate. He knew that it was customary to present gifts, so he bought a gift on the way—a light blue watch. Afterwards, he found out that in Chinese culture a clock symbolizes death, and light blue is the color for mourning. “Next time he will get cultural advice before undertaking negotiations,” said Prof. Sebenius.
 
He presented a classic mistake in negotiations—focusing on the demands of the other party instead of exploring motives and seeking common interests. Another common mistake is focusing on the difficulties of the parties around a negotiation table and not on the topics beyond them. For example, in the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, Gorbachev did not oppose the move, but public opinion in his country did. President Bush focused on helping Gorbachev in dealing with his domestic affairs and did not exacerbate the tension even in the face of militant declarations that arose out of internal exigencies.
 
Another problem he presented was focusing on negotiation techniques instead of constructing topics that are possible to agree on. For example, regarding Iran, as long as Iran is aspiring to a nuclear weapon, no negotiation processes will succeed, according to Sebenius. One must create a reality, in which Iran will give up its aspiration for a nuclear weapon because the price is too high.
 
Economic Incentives and their Effects
 
Professor of political philosophy Michael Sandel from Harvard University spoke about economic incentives and their effect. “What do you think about privatized prisons, which would allow inmates to improve their prison conditions in exchange for payment?” asked Sandel. He noted that in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are more contracted workers in the military than there are American soldiers, and this is without any profound public dialogue having taken place regarding the issue.
 
Prof. Sandel also spoke about experiments carried out in New York and Dallas, where schoolchildren were paid money for good grades and for reading books. What were the results of the experiments? In New York the money did not improve the grades. In Dallas, however, the schoolchildren did read more books in exchange for two dollars. “They also chose to read shorter books,” he said, which made everyone laugh. “However, the important question is what will happen with these children when they grow up? Will they like reading books, or will they stop reading books when the money stops?”
 
He summarized by saying, “When we use economic logic in non-material areas, there can be corruption of the product or the service. Economics and ethics inevitably go together. The question is whether we want a society where everything is for sale, or do we have moral assets that money can’t buy.”
 
President Peres: “We must not Seek Perfection”
 
The next speaker was President of Israel Shimon Peres. “God has given me enough time to make mistakes, and I intend to take advantage of every minute,” said the President. “I am not a perfect person, but I analyze my mistakes, and, believe me, I have a lot of material.”
 
“We must not seek perfection,” continued the President, “because we won’t be achieving it any time soon. When we set goals that are too high, disappointment is unavoidable.”
 
A major problem, according to President Peres, is when we cannot achieve the ultimate goal, and so some people choose not to try at all. His advice for avoiding mistakes: “Close your eyes a little. It is impossible to make love or to make peace with your eyes open. Don’t think about the past. The past is dead, and you cannot fix it. From the past, we must preserve only the lessons we have learned.”