Mistake tolerance. This is a term invented by Adam Savage in his book, Every Tool’s a Hammer. Naturally, as a lifelong maker and engineer, Adam Savage uses mechanical concepts as a way to frame his life philosophy. And I think it’s resulted in a very, very valuable perspective. Mistake tolerance is akin to mechanical tolerance. Mechanical tolerance defines how tightly a machine’s construction must conform to expected parameters. The mechanical tolerance in an engine is fairly tight – if you throw handfuls of leaves in there, that machine’s not going to be running very long. The mechanical tolerance in a lawnmower, on the other hand, is by necessity a lot looser. If you have to replace something in an engine, be sure to get exactly the right part. If you’re fixing an old pair of scissors, you can probably get away with just about any bolt you can lay your hands on.
Mistake tolerance is that, but for people. It’s a tolerance of screwing up, of being inefficient, of wasting time or materials. Some tasks have very tight mistake tolerance – like, say, brain surgery. Others do not – making yourself breakfast. When you make yourself breakfast, if everything goes wrong and you drop the cereal bowl on the floor? You’ve got more milk and cereal in the fridge. It’s early in the day – you can probably afford another few minutes to start over. When you’re doing surgery, you don’t have a replacement patient to start over again on.
So part of this mistake tolerance thing, of Adam Savage’s, is giving yourself a much looser tolerance when it comes to things you’re not familiar with. When you’re learning? You need to build a loose tolerance into the task. You need to give yourself a cushion. In the context of his book, he’s mostly talking about physical making – and his main examples include getting extra materials. Dressmakers should get double or triple the amount of cloth they’ll need, a chef cooking for twenty’s going to buy supplies to cook for twenty-five. If it goes perfectly, yes, stuff will go to waste – but if things don’t go perfectly, instead of trying to salvage burnt food or stitch together pieces of cloth to make up for a failure elsewhere, it’s less of a problem.
So on the one hand, there’s building a looser mistake tolerance with yourself – making room for mistakes. Viewing mistakes and failure as an integral part of the procedure of doing something – not to be sought out, but rather to be ameliorated ahead of time by making room for it. Make room for a mistake, and when one happens, there’s that much less self-blame and anguish, and more of a sense that a mistake is a problem to be solved.
On the other hand, there’s understanding your own inner mistake tolerance – knowing just how much room you need to make those mistakes and experiment to find solutions to fix them, and what ways you can find ways to cushion a situation. The brain surgeon can cushion the situation by finding ways to get more information with x-rays and CAT scans, pre-plan the operation, run a rehearsal with a model or a med-school cadaver before operating on a live patient, etcetera.
Needless to say, this mistake tolerance thing has been racing around my head since I read about it. A related concept, which is now up on my corkboards, is that a failure or overrun deadline is the end of the project, not the creator. I have given myself almost no mistake tolerance in my life, and failures have always felt like they’re catastrophes – and I suspect this isn’t uncommon. My earliest encounters with mistakes were with teachers who used to scream at me and tell me I was an utter dunce for my poor handwriting one minute, while telling me I was far too intelligent to be making any mistakes the next. Maybe it’s not that strange that I’m way too hard on myself when things don’t go well?
So. I’m working out ways to broaden my mindset around things and give myself more mistake tolerance. I’m starting to draw up time management plans going into next year – including a work schedule which will, if it works out, hopefully dovetail nicely into getting the Patreon running again.
For now, though, the Patreon’s still paused, and I am still, as ever, so very thankful for everyone’s support. I hope you all have a wonderful end of year.