The Blaming Fallacy

How many of these have you given yourself?

How many times have we looked back at a relatively short period of time (weeks or months) and realized all the things we did wrong and blamed ourselves for not doing better? I’ve done it many times and every time I’ve felt either miserable or angry.

What’s the point in this reflection then? We make mistakes and we should learn from them so as to not make them again. That’s fine if it stops at that. But more often than not it does not stop at that. After mulling over the lessons learnt, we start blaming ourselves for making those mistakes. That just ruins all the effort put in to contemplation.

It’s great to have the ability to rush through all that data from the past and cherry-pick the data which shows us that we were wrong. We have made great progress because of this ability but when we take the next step of blaming ourselves for those mistakes we miss the point of the exercise.

We make mistakes and sometimes the mistakes we make were unavoidable given the circumstances. Looking back, of course, it might not seem so because we have a lot more data to answer the same question. Nevertheless, it is true many more times than we convince ourselves.

The world is complex and me saying it a million times is not going to be enough to convince your heuristic-ridden brains. To be able to deal with all the complexity our brain depends on shortcuts that it has created based on our past experiences. These heuristics, as they are called, are usually very useful but they also lead to the creation of biases. These biases lead us sometimes to underestimate the complexity of the world and blame ourselves for things we might not really be responsible.

Of course, playing the ‘world is complex’ card too many times can not only be futile but also harmful. It’s a card to be played when the exercise of finding our faults isn’t being helpful, when the self-criticism is stopping us from growing.

Related: The importance of differentiating between mistakes and failures.

Mistakes and Failures: Why it’s important to differentiate

How many times have we looked back at a relatively short period of time (weeks or months) and realized all the things we wronged/failed at and then blamed ourselves for not doing better? I’ve done it many times and every time I’ve felt either miserable or angry.

We often don’t spend the time in differentiating between failures and mistakes and in treating them both as mistakes we lead ourselves on to the path of misery. Seth Godin explains the difference well:

A failure is a project that doesn’t work, an initiative that teaches you something at the same time the outcome doesn’t move you directly closer to your goal.

A mistake is either a failure repeated, doing something for the second time when you should have known better, or a misguided attempt (because of carelessness, selfishness or hubris) that hindsight reminds you is worth avoiding.

Failure is good because there is a lesson at the end of it. We fail and we should learn from those failures so as to not fail again. But when we treat our failures as mistakes, we also inevitably make the mistake of blaming ourselves for all those mistakes. That just ruins all the effort put in to contemplation.

It’s great to have the ability to rush through all that data from the past and cherry-pick that which shows us where we went wrong. We have made great progress because of this ability but only when we’ve also been successful at differentiating failures and mistakes.

(As a side – what makes it hard to do this differentiation is that looking back, of course, we have a lot more data to answer the same questions. A failure might seem like a mistake when it wasn’t at the time.)

No one likes failing or making mistakes but it is definitely easier to deal with the prior than the latter.