A few years ago, in a speech by the hiring partner of a top Boston law firm, he described the most important influence on his own success at the firm.
As a new associate, full of ambition, he asked the hiring partner of the earlier time how that man had succeeded to his position. The older man said, "Two words - good decisions." As he turned to leave the associate asked a second question; "How do you learn to make good decisions?" Came the answer: "Two words - bad decisions."
Neuroscientists assure us that higher mammals, especially humans, are programmed to learn from mistakes, but it's hardly a given in the unfolding of events we call history.
Americans seemed determined to repeat the sad lessons of Vietnam in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's still a painful exercise and one resisted by nearly everyone.
Doctors are like anyone else in that they don't like criticism.
Improved surgical technique and early treatment have improved mortality in soldiers gravely wounded in Iraq. But the greatest improvement in mortality and recovery took place at Walter Reed Hospital, the army's top speciality hospital. It wasn't by chance.
Doctors meeting regularly were able to discuss their cases and freely acknowledge their errors in an non-judgmental atmosphere where confidentiality made it safe for professionals to share what worked and what didn't. The result in applying the shared bad decisions was a significant decrease in morbidity and mortality.
The government's response to the failed Novopay scheme illustrates the antonym.
The information made public demonstrates that knowledge of the system's flaws was available even before its actual operational use in August. Ministers Hekia Parata and Bill English signed off on it in Panglossian magical hope against fact that all would be well in this best of all possible worlds.
The error is being compounded as Minster Steven Joyce, in a show of solemnity, escalates his commitment of taxpayer money.
It's $100 million and counting. The throwing of good money after bad would only be governmental farce, putting the lie to the vaunted efficiencies of a business-led government. Except for the tragedy it imposes on our teachers, who are its proximal victims. The teachers' worries over paying their own bills have to devolve on to students. And taxpayers will pay for the failed system and its successor.
The Novopay debacle will inevitably end badly, but that ending - another pay system brought forward - would be speedily resolved were the current system made the vehicle for paying parliamentarians.
Politicians traditionally believe that they can be forgiven for mistakes as long as they don't admit them. The fear is that the opposition, seeing a vulnerability acknowledged, will take advantage. It's a fear that, when tested, is often shown to be groundless. That's because constituents can tolerate the quick, hard truths much better than the dragged-out dissembling.
By contrast, there is hope of a more successful outcome of our problems with sewage disposal in Wanganui. And here is why: the fact that Kevin Ross accepts responsibility for his staff's not passing upwards the known information on inadequacies of the treatment plant is a good sign. The failure to communicate is most likely an outgrowth of a bureaucratic culture in which reporting of unpleasant news was met with pain for the messenger.
An atmosphere of distrust and fear takes a long time to grow, and it will take time to reverse the process and instil an environment safe enough for people to come forward and let the "emperors" know when they've run out of clothes.
A good first step was taken by the chief executive. If the boss can own up to error, it's easier for the others to do so.