I'm brand new to Less Wrong, and very pleased that I found a topic right away that I have given a great deal of thought to already, since it's affected me throughout my life. I grew up with a mother who was constantly critical, and stingy or withholding of praise, with the result that my sister and I, who are both in our late 40s, still converse about the negative affect that my mother had on us when it comes to making mistakes, and attempting to do new things.

I used to feel that I was being scolded because I didn't know something I "ought to have known" in advance. I'm not referring to breaking some established rule in the family. I'm talking about being blindsided by sudden harsh words in a loud volume about something I had never heard about or considered before, something that I had had the nerve to "get wrong." This happened often enough that I began thinking that I had better not try to do things unless I knew EVERYTHING there was to know BEFORE I took any action. This, not surprisingly, had the affect of paralyzing me into inaction, fearing the reprisals for "mistakes", and of course, the judgment about what was right and what was wrong was based on what my mother thought about the issue, which was largely subjective.

As my sister and I got older, we began challenging my mother about her views and how she spoke to us. She was quite unhappy about being challenged by her daughters, who had once been so docile and albeit unhappily, accepting of her criticism and punishment. I did many years of therapy, starting in my early teens, I also read many books and articles about and took several courses in psychology, and did the est training (a personal growth seminar) in 1983. My sister and I both eventually came to the understanding that not only do you not have to know everything about an endeavor before embarking upon it, you CAN'T know what you need to know EXCEPT in the process of doing it. There is a reason it's called "trial and error". You don't learn anything when you know how to do something and get it right the first time. You learn when you make mistakes, and you find that you need to keep working at getting it, yes, "less wrong".

My son who is 15 now, is in his first year of High School at both his neighborhood HS and at an engineering program at a local magnet HS. His class had a project that incorporated their biology and engineering principles coursework that was due in January. They were assigned teams, and had to come up with a hemodialysis machine. There is a company that supplies the school with a synthetic blood, which is filled with a substrate, and the teacher provides a selection of components the kids have to use in their design. The team has to prove that their device filters the distillate material out of the synthetic blood.

Matthew told me that all the other teams designed a machine, and stuck to their original design, whereas he kept experimenting and coming up with different designs. His team didn't do any of the designing, they saw that Matthew knew how to take charge, and he just delegated to them the tasks that would assist him in completing the machine. They got very concerned that he kept changing his design, but when they asked him why he was doing that, he just said "I have to get it right, and until it's right, I won't use the design." He had the team present the paper explaining the machine they finally built, and he demonstrated how it worked. They got a 95%. I am very proud of him. I have worked hard on raising him without the same mistakes that my mother made (so I've given him a bunch of different mistakes ;) ) He has always been told that it's not only OK to make mistakes, they are necessary stepping stones on the pathway towards accomplishment and knowledge.

Just Try It: Quantity Trumps Quality

by atucker 1 min read4th Apr 201183 comments


Followup to: Don't Fear Failure

In the same theme as the last article, I think that failure is actually pretty important in learning. Rationality needs data, and trying is a good source of it.

When you're trying to do something new, you probably won't be able to do it right the first time. Even if you obsess over it. Jeff Atwood is a programmer who says Quantity Always Trumps Quality

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Where have I heard this before?

  1. Stop theorizing.
  2. Write lots of software.
  3. Learn from your mistakes.

Quantity always trumps quality. 

When it comes to software, the same rule applies. If you aren't building, you aren't learning. Rather than agonizing over whether you're building the right thing, just build it. And if that one doesn't work, keep building until you get one that does.

The people who tried more did better, even though they failed more too. Of course you shouldn't try to fail, but you shouldn't let the fear of it stop you from tyring.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that quantity always trumps quality, but where the cost of failure is low lots of failures that you pay attention to is a pretty good way of learning. You should  hold off on proposing solutions, but you also need to get around to actually trying the proposed solution.

I'm normed such that I'll spend more time talking about if something will work than trying it out to see if it works. The problem is that if you don't know about something already, your thoughts about what will work aren't going to be particularly accurate. Trying something will very conclusively demonstrate if something works or not.

I originally had this as part of Don't Fear Failure, but that post got too long.