Mistakes: by Jonathan D. Lettvin

Copyright(c)2000-2016 Jonathan D. Lettvin, All Rights Reserved.

Recounting a lesson learned from my father
written for presentation to his friends
on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.

Make mistakes.
Make big memorable mistakes.

What is a heroic deed, a valuable effort,
if not a mistake as others see it.

What deed can be heroic if others do not fear it.

A mistake is precious, unique to you,
full of opportunity and insight.

It is a path your friends do not take.
And yet it is well-trodden by storybook heroes.

And it is the quiet path taken by the many
unsung heroes hidden around you.

You can recognize a mistake when a group such as this one
tells you it is or you know they would tell you it is.

You have no identity or value without your mistakes.
So choose your mistakes well, for they define you.

Choosing to belong to a group is a fine mistake,
full of the unexpected.

Think of the smartest people you know.
Do they think independently and disagree with each other?
That is the hallmark of intelligence.

Now think of any group to which you belong.
Your common beliefs define the group.
Acting in concert is the hallmark of groups.

Acting in concert can be powerful or foolish.
To know which it is, study how other groups,
unfamiliar in culture or time, acted in concert.

Know the rituals of unfamiliar people, and where you must,
hold close the rituals of your ancestors
where they are right and good.


Know the law of your land
and be known as one who loves the law.

To stay in a group you will be asked
to put aside smart works to perform stupid works.
Do NOT, however, avoid GOOD works or perform BAD works.

Follow your heart and conscience
even if it means leaving a group.

Beware the slow chipping away of your judgement
whether the chipping takes days or years.

The worst moments in human history are built on
the degraded judgement of groups led by a despot.

First, do not yourself be a despot.
Tolerate, even welcome, the mistakes of others.
Think of why others' mistakes are right and good.

Then, a mistake you MUST make is to
stand within the group against the despot,
or leave the group and fight from without.

The hearts of all people are filled with trouble.  Yet
the most troubled heart can experience the deepest joys.

Survivors of the many evil doings, great and small,
that have filled our last century with shame
posess a unique glow of love and vigilance.

The despot deplores mistakes
and the frightened group agrees
and your mistake will cost you dear
and it will raise you above your despot
and your life will be well-lived.