Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

After I quit Amazon and embarked on a several-month sabbatical, someone on Twitter recommended this book. I bought it, expecting to understand why people are so stupid on the Internet, but I ended up learning a lot about myself.

The book centers around cognitive dissonance (or at least that’s what I remember, writing this a couple years later). We have beliefs about ourselves — ”I am good”, “I am smart” (or stupid), “I am a conservative”. Our brains have a (rhetorical) hemorrhage when the world doesn’t align with those beliefs. For example, if I believe “I am smart” but I’m currently in a room with 7 world-class engineers and I’m clearly the dumbest one in the room — the human brain attempts to resolve the conflict.

Our primitive brain might do a few things.

  • Attack or insult people to prove that I’m on their level (oh, I’ve never done that…)
  • Hide or don’t talk for fear of proving it true (totally not me…)
  • Run away or leave the room (who would do that?…)

Of course, it’s a false dichotomy. You can be both “smart” and the dumbest person in the room. If you choose to ignore that internal conflict, you just might learn an incredible amount from these people. But if you’ve ever been in that situation, it doesn’t seem easy.

I knew this stuff before reading the book. But I didn’t fully understand the mechanics. The book helped me work through my own beliefs and actions much like “Debug -> Step Into” in an IDE. After some reflection, I could see areas where I was experiencing cognitive dissonance where I didn’t need to (hint: you never need to).

I also began to extend much more grace to others. For example, there was a guy at work that was demeaning toward just about everyone. My gut reaction was hate, but after reflecting I realized that he was also experiencing the “I am smart” dissonance. He used to work in an industry that doesn’t exactly attract star software engineers, so he was always the best, by a big margin. When he moved to the current company, he no longer stood head-and-sholders above everyone else (speaking of technical skills, although he was fairly tall physically tbh). I was able to extend him a lot more grace after realizing this, and that made work infinitely more tolerable for myself. It’s a lot easier to have a functioning relationship with someone if you don’t hate them.

This book changed my life. I was feeling burnt out after Amazon, and my reflection while reading this book allowed me to see my own role in the burnout rather than blaming others. Simply being aware of the internal conflict helped me reframe my attitude.

I highly recommend this book to anyone that breathes air.