Try Practicing Error-Aware Thinking

Not accounting for error is a very common error.

When I was in Boy Scouts, we had a rule about campgrounds: You had to leave it cleaner than you found it. The rule was not, “Take away all the trash you bring in” — the rule was, “before you leave a site, find any trash and remove it.”

Photo from Wikipedia.

I like this rule, and think it contains a larger life lesson: There is a problem with the rule “I will look after myself, but I won’t clean someone else’s mess.” That rule works fine if everyone follows it perfectly, but it fails miserably when people make mistakes.

If each person drops 10 pieces of trash, and picks up 10 pieces of trash, then the total amount of trash remains constant. The rule works perfectly fine without accounting for error. What happens when you add in error?

Some people might leave 10 pieces of trash, and only pick up 9 — let’s say a gum wrapper gets left behind, because the person who left it behind simply forgot about it. It’s an innocent mistake — but now it’s going to sit there, ruining the view.

Will anyone drop 10 pieces of trash, and pick up 11? Probably not. That would mean they’d pick up someone else’s trash, mistakenly thinking it was their own. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about people, it’s that even honest mistakes tend to favor the person making them.

Which would you notice first — getting too much change, or too little? Being undercharged, or being overcharged? Someone cutting you off in traffic, or you cutting someone else off?

If you show up at a campground with 100 pieces of trash, even if you try to pick up only the things you leave — you’re almost certainly going to leave it messier than you found it.

When people make mistakes, everybody following a rule that works perfectly if there are no mistakes will lead to worsening conditions. It’s just simple math. The world gets dirtier and dirtier. Crappy conditions don’t require people being evil — they just require people to be fallible, which everyone is.

This will happen, even if everyone is good and everyone does their best follow the rule “Pick up what you leave behind”. The culprit is error — as long as error happens, this will happen — Unless we follow a different rule.

What about the rule “I’m always going to fix at least one thing that I didn’t break?” It’s not hard to see that if everybody followed that, the world will become cleaner at a rapid pace. Even if people make mistakes — maybe they under-count every now and then — the world still gets cleaner.

“I treat people 99% as well as I prefer to be treated.”

Nobody would defend a world view which says “I treat people 99% as well as I’d prefer to be treated.” That would be absurd. It would be seen as selfish, shortsighted and foolish. You’re going to lose friends that way.

The thing is, that’s exactly the worldview you have if you say “I treat people as well as I expect to be treated, and no better” — unless you’re going to claim you never make mistakes. Once you accept that you are flawed and will make mistakes, you need to account for those mistakes in all of your principles — otherwise, you’re just lying to yourself about how you interact with the world.

If you don’t consciously treat people slightly better than you wish to be treated, you’re going to make mistakes, and I assure you, this means you’re treating them worse than you want to be treated.

The Modified Golden Rule: Treat others slightly better than you wish to be treated.

If everyone does this, even accounting for error, the world will be a wonderful place.

In a world where every human being follows the golden rule as best they can, but still fails every now and then — mistrust will grow, deception will become more common, and the commons will suffer. Do you think the world is a mess right now?

It doesn’t take evil. It just takes errors — and a culture that is focused on fairness, rather than expecting everyone to give a little more than is fair.