Offsetting Mistakes

When I look back on any activity that I’ve done, I always look for ways I could do it better. Usually the first question is: did I do a good job on that activity or do I need to completely rethink my approach?

The biggest clue I get is the outcome of the activity. For example, let’s say I tried to predict a company’s profit for a quarter. At the end of the quarter, I get to compare my prediction to what actually happened. Let’s say that my prediction for profit was correct. It would be tempting to just say that my system worked and requires no tinkering for predicting the next quarter’s profit.

However, let’s say that I broke down my prediction and it turns out that I overestimated revenue and overestimated costs. The net result was that my prediction was correct about profit. However, it was only correct because I made two mistakes that happened to cancel each other out.

The above example is trivial and easily quantifiable. However, offsetting mistakes are a constant threat. It makes it hard to trust all results that I observe. Let’s say that I am running late for an important meeting (mistake 1) and to make it worse, I don’t even tell the person that I am running late (mistake 2). That person happens to be even later to the meeting than me and never realizes that I was late. Since, they never knew I was running late, it’s almost like I made no mistakes. My two mistakes would have offset each other.

In software engineering, sometimes it is tempting to only test the input and final output for a piece of software. One of the big dangers is that offsetting mistakes can hide between input and the correct outputs. Instead it is better, though more tedious, to write unit tests that for each part of the software.

I try to approach my life  with the same lens. Just because something had a positive outcome, doesn’t mean my preceding actions were “correct”.  They could have been wrong in offsetting ways. I try to break my actions into small pieces and evaluate each in isolation, but that is far from a perfect strategy. Awareness of this issue definitely forces me to be more reflective, seek more advice and question whether I can do things better.


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