Weak Links

I don’t like making mistakes. I imagine I’m not alone in that regard, so this post might have some useful advice for you!

One of the ways I’ve managed to reduce the number of mistakes I make in my day-to-day life, work, and other activities is to take active stock of the weak points in my decision-making and the “blind spots” in my actions.

Here’s a very basic example: let’s say I’m moving about in a crowded store with breakable things on the shelves. First, I recognize that this requires me to actually act differently than if I were walking around outside. Second, I recognize that if I’m going to knock something over and break it, it’s probably not going to be with my hands. Why? My hand-eye coordination is good, my hands are always in front of me and thus in my field of view, and there’s usually more clear space in front of me than behind me. No, if I’m going to knock something over, it’s almost certainly going to be with my elbows.

My elbows only have to move a small amount back to be outside of my field of view, they have less sensory input than my hands, and the space behind me is often more limited (when we feel crowded or cramped, we tend to back up as a general rule). So, since I’m aware of that, I correct for it. I bring my elbows into my sides and lock them there. I don’t step backwards at all. I look over my shoulder and check my distances as I move around the crowd.

In other words, I looked for the weakness in my process, realizing that mistakes would likely come from there if they come from anywhere.

This applies to… well, just about everything. In just about any process, you have “hands and elbows,” meaning areas that you’re naturally very well attuned to and competent in, and areas that are in your blind spots. Mistakes more often come from the elbows.

When mistakes aren’t very costly, focus on your strengths. If I were out doing yard work in my own yard, there aren’t many things I could hurt with a stray elbow. So it would be silly to waste effort constantly checking them; in that instance, I should be focusing on my hands and doing my best work. But when mistakes are costly (like being in a crowded glassware store), it makes sense to be more aware of my weaknesses.

Identifying the difference between the two scenarios, and then identifying what to do in each, can reduce your mistakes considerably. And it’s better advice than a generic “be careful.”

When my daughter is climbing a tree (a frequent occurrence!), I never say “be careful.” That’s about as useless a piece of advice as you can give. Instead, I say “look at your feet.” She, like most people, looks at her hands while climbing. But you’re not going to fall because of your hands – if you fall, it will be because you weren’t watching your feet and you got a piece of footing that wasn’t secure and it slips out. That’s the weak point, and falling out of a tree is a costly enough mistake that it warrants mitigating.

80% of the time (at least), you’ll be in situations where it’s more correct to go all-in on your strengths. But in those 20% of times where mistakes can be severe, reduce them – watch your feet and elbows.

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